Despite 'Fight Club' Reports, Job Corps Centers to Stay Open

Despite 'Fight Club' Reports, Job Corps Centers to Stay Open
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Despite 'Fight Club' Reports, Job Corps Centers to Stay Open
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
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After the Department of Labor announced it would close a federal Job Corps center in his state, Sen. Steve Daines phoned a friend. 

Would it be possible, he asked, to keep open the facility in Anaconda, Montana? Hundreds of jobs were at stake, after all. Not a problem, responded the voice on the other end of the line, and two days later Daines put out a press release.

“Daines Saves Anaconda Job Corps Center from Closing,” the announcement read. “Decision follows Daines’ call with President Trump urging the Administration to keep the Center open, saving Montana jobs.” 

The press release and a subsequent Twitter video posted by Daines’ office served as something of a how-to guide for other lawmakers eager to keep imperiled Job Corps centers open in their states. Call the president directly, if possible. Send letters to administration heads. Complain loudly.

A bipartisan group of 18 senators and 33 representatives, led by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and joined by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, followed suit. And it worked. After about a month of lobbying, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, who oversee the 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers in question, told Politico on Wednesday that they would not shutter a single facility. (The Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service currently operates the centers, which are a subset of the Job Corps program.)

The decision comes after a two-year effort by the Trump administration to close nine centers in mostly rural Republican states and ahead of the 2020 presidential election. It also comes despite concerns over the safety and well-being of students at those facilities.

A Department of Labor memo obtained by RealClearPolitics details “recent safety incidents” at each of the nine centers the administration planned to shutter but will now keep open. At the one in Montana that Daines saved, a student “choked out a peer until he passed out.” During another incident, two other students “were caught smoking meth.”

Despite recent safety concerns, a spokeswoman told RCP that Daines “strongly supports the Anaconda Job Corps program as it is critical to Montana and helps create hundreds of jobs in southwest Montana and provides future generations of Montanans with the tools they need to succeed in the work force.”

“The Senator greatly appreciates President Trump’s leadership,” she added after noting that the program is meant to serve at-risk youth and that the Anaconda facility regularly ranks well in terms of performance.

There are currently 123 Job Corps centers across the country -- holdovers from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative -- and the Trump administration is not the first to take aim at weaker links in the program. President Obama managed to shut down three underperforming centers during his tenure, arguing that they were not a good use of taxpayer funds. Current administration aides said the same before the White House caved on Wednesday.

“The Job Corp program is decades overdue for reform, which should come as no surprise with reports of violence and deaths seen in multiple [inspector general] reports,” one told RCP. “We can prioritize taxpayer funds to better-performing centers to help the most students and communities with real positive impact.”

But parochial interests triumphed over safety concerns, some of them long-documented by the media and others more recently detailed by the Department of Labor.

At the Blackwell Job Corps facility in Laona, Wisconsin, one student assaulted a teacher, another flashed a class, and “there was a fight club on center.” According to the government memo, students organized fights, recorded the brawls and shared the videos. The federal government spends $48,000 for each student to enroll at the facility.

At the Cass Job Corps center in Ozark, Arkansas, a student assaulted a member of the staff, another student used “a heated chipping hammer” to burn a classmate, and a third student was assaulted and “branded in welding class.” According to the memo, each student slot costs $55,000.

At the Job Corps center in Frenchburg, Kentucky, “a student choked another student until he passed out, resulting in a fractured jaw.” It costs $66,000 for each student to enroll there. At the center in Pine Knot two hours away, “a student swung an axe at another student’s legs,” another student was charged with “trafficking marijuana on federal property,” and a third placed a classmate in a choke hold until he turned “blueish.” According to the memo, each slot costs $47,000.

The fight club, the branding and the drug-trafficking are not isolated incidents. Among other troubling episodes, the memo records sexual assault, underage drinking, and a knife fight with box cutters. Every center where each incident occurred will remain open.

According to a statement by Perdue (pictured) and Acosta, first reported by Politico, their departments will focus on making the programs “better and stronger.”

“For the time being, USDA does not intend to transfer these centers to [the Labor Department]” -- as previously planned -- “to allow management to determine a pathway that will maximize opportunity and results for students, minimize disruptions, and improve overall performance and integrity,” the statement said.

The administration “will conduct a robust organizational review to determine the appropriate course of action, keeping in mind the [Forest Service] mission, the students we serve, and the American taxpayers.”

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