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Job Corps Still Failing Vulnerable Youth on Health and Safety


Addressing systemic problems in a government program can often be — let’s just say — a challenge for the federal bureaucracy. But the failure of basic good governance is particularly troubling when systemic problems jeopardize the health and safety of American citizens.

That has long been the track record of the Job Corps program, which was created to help disadvantaged youth gain skills and educational support to compete in the workforce, pursue a career in the Armed Forces, or further their education. The program has played an important role in the lives of many young individuals, yet it has also been plagued by serious health and safety concerns for years.
  • In 2009, the Department of Labor’s Inspector General (IG) raised alarms over health and safety at Job Corps centers. Multiple centers failed to ensure compliance with safety and health standards. Another center failed to take the proper steps to address student misconduct, including threats of violence. Physical assault and narcotics possession at a separate Job Corps center went unreported. Others failed to demonstrate that they had conducted required inspections, resulting in students being exposed to various health and safety hazards.
As far as failures in the program, this is just scratching the surface. In fact, at the time, the IG noted that “40 percent of 235 significant incidents occurring at [six] centers during our audit period were not reported.” There are currently an estimated 60,000 youth being served at approximately 125 centers located across the country.

Fast forward to 2014. Congress passed a bill sponsored by Chairwoman Virginia Foxx (R-NC), the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The bill modernizes an outdated workforce development system to help put more Americans back to work. Among other provisions, the bipartisan law enacts reforms to improve the Jobs Corps program, including:
  • Requiring applicants to pass a background check, take a drug test, and “manifest a basic understanding” of the rules they will have to follow and the consequences if they don’t;
       
  • Denying access to individuals who have been convicted of murder, child abuse, or a crime involving rape and sexual assault;
      
  • Requiring the secretary of labor to adopt guidelines that create a zero tolerance for violence, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, or other illegal activities; and
        
  • Empowering directors of Job Corps centers to take disciplinary action against students who violate the policies and standards of the center, including expelling students who threaten the safety of staff, students, and neighboring communities.
These reforms are just now beginning to take hold, following some unnecessary delays by the previous administration. And as a number of recent events reveal, these reforms are taking hold not a moment too soon.

In early 2015, the IG released a report stating, “Job Corps needs to improve enforcement and oversight of student disciplinary policies to better protect students and staff.” Then, just months later, two students were murdered at separate Job Corps centers. These tragic deaths led the IG’s office to conduct another comprehensive review of security and violence within the program. In March, the IG released the findings of his office’s investigation.

The latest review examined actions taken in response to potentially criminal misconduct, physical security at centers, and efforts to mitigate violence and other crimes. The IG’s office found troubling deficiencies in all three areas. Among other findings, the IG’s March 2017 report documents startling details of mismanagement, including:
  • Failure to respond effectively to potentially serious criminal misconduct, including not informing law enforcement or misclassifying significant incidents.
      
  • Physical security weaknesses related to campus access and monitoring exists at all 12 centers examined during the review.
       
  • Efforts to address these concerns “lacked a continuous evaluation and improvement process.”
Isn’t it time to not only demand better results, but more importantly, actually deliver better results for students, staff and the hardworking taxpayers who foot the bill for this program?

These are some of the questions committee members will ask in the coming weeks as the committee holds an oversight hearing on the Job Corps program. Members will examine the IG's recent findings, look at the implementation of recent reforms to the program, and provide the accountability this important program lacks and the American people deserve.