The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After murders and other violence, federal Job Corps program comes under scrutiny

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The arrests this month of three young men and a woman on charges they hacked a fellow student to death in a federally funded job training center in Miami — and another murder in St. Louis this spring —are putting a spotlight on violence inside Job Corps.

The antipoverty program born during President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty to give low-income teenagers free vocational training has been beset by violence for years. Investigators have found with lax enforcement of discipline policies set by the Labor Department, which runs the 125 job centers around the country.

The recent murders have prompted the agency’s inspector general, which earlier this year documented violence and other safety concerns that investigators said went unreported, to launch a deeper investigation into safety in the $1.7 billion program.

“There have now been two homicides in the last four months,” said Luiz Santos, spokesman for Inspector General Scott S. Dahl. “It’s really raised the bar for us in terms of looking at this program. This is very serious.”

On Tuesday, the suspected ringleader in the gruesome murder in June of 17-year-old Jose Santos Amaya-Guardado pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and other charges in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, according to local media reports.

Investigators said that Kaheem Arbelo, 20, and three other students at Homestead Job Center confessed to luring Amaya-Guardado to a prepared grave site, where they hacked him to death with a machete, dumped him in the grave and set him on fire, the Miami Herald reported. Investigators believe the killing may have stemmed from a debt that the victim owed to Arbelo.

In April, prosecutors charged a 20-year-old man with first-degree murder for shooting a fellow student in the chest while he lay in his dorm room bed on the St. Louis Job Corps campus. The suspect was a new student who was in the process of moving into the victim’s room, published reports said. The motive was unclear.

This violence followed the rape of a female student at the Oregon Job Corps center by a male security guard who pleaded guilty last year, and reports of assaults, sex abuse and drug abuse on the campus in McKinney, Tex.

In a statement, Labor Department spokesman Stephen G. Barr said recent student deaths “are a cause of grave concern for Job Corps.”

“Job Corps responded immediately to these incidents and cooperated fully with police investigations,” Barr said. “We have assessed these tragic events and are working with operators, safety experts, and the student community to ensure that we protect all students and that they feel safe and secure while pursuing their studies at Job Corps.”

He said the program “has clear policies to address student discipline, including a zero tolerance policy for matters involving violence and illegal drug use.” Staff and contractors have been told that improving student safety is a top priority.

But the inspector general found in February that despite the zero-tolerance policy for violence and illegal drugs, local job corps centers have failed to report and investigate serious misconduct like drug abuse and assaults, and many downgrade violent infractions to lesser infractions to keep students enrolled.

A physical assault that causes bodily harm is supposed to lead to automatic expulsion from the program. But students with drug and violence histories were allowed to stay, investigators found.

The job centers are run mostly by outside contractors. They’ve been plagued in recent years by financial mismanagement and cost overruns that led to a halt in new enrollments in 2013.  The program’s 60,000 students typically live on campus.

A number of inspector general reports have questioned the program’s commitment to its disciplinary policy. The disclosures in February suggested systemic problems.

[Job Corps closes the door on new recruits]

For example, a group of students faced no consequences for assaulting and injuring another student on campus. The victim sustained injuries to his jaw and hands, dropped out of the program after the attack.

[Mismanagement led to Job Corps deficits, watchdog says]

The violence has come to the attention of members of Congress.

“The Labor Department is responsible for the safety of these students,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a statement. “…The inspector general has documented widespread problems creating an unsafe environment.  If it can’t ensure their safety, it needs to reconsider everything about the way this program is run.  The zero tolerance policy for violence needs to mean something.  It obviously doesn’t at too many Job Corps centers right now.”

Grassley, in a letter, has asked senior Labor Department officials to tell him what they are doing to ensure the safety of Job Corps students.

[Labor Department official resigns among Job Corps budget problems]

Barr said Job Corps plans to launch a new program in September, Youth 2 Youth, led by students who are “seeking to reach other students within their communities for the purpose of addressing violence, aggression, and bullying.”