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City chief questions Northlands' version of story

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Posted on February 16, 2012 |
By Andy Kirkaldy



VERGENNES — Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel disagreed on Wednesday with a statement released through the U.S. Department of Labor that Northlands Job Corps officials notified his department in a timely manner of a Feb. 7 assault that sent a Northlands student to Porter Hospital.

Meanwhile, Northlands officials this week declined to comment directly on the on-campus assault that left a 17-year-old Northlands student with a broken neck and nose.

Vergennes police on Feb. 8 cited Northlands students Frederick Teal, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Eleanor Wilcox, 17, of Providence, R.I., for aggravated assault after an investigation that began 23 hours after the incident.

The Department of Labor, or DOL, oversees the national Job Corps program and contracts with private firms to operate the roughly 120 U.S. Job Corps vocational training centers for disadvantaged youth. Aluutiiq LLC, an Alaska company, has operated Northlands since June after winning the contract to run the city center for the second time.

DOL Regional Director for Public Affairs Ted Fitzgerald on Tuesday emailed a statement to the Independent that read, in part, “According to the Center, when the student came forward with the assault details the police were notified.”

Merkel, however, said this Wednesday that his department’s investigation showed the student gave conflicting statements on the evening of Feb. 7 to Northlands personnel.

Merkel said Northlands personnel told his officers that the student first maintained that his injuries — two cervical fractures, according to the victim’s mother, as well as the broken nose — were the result of a fall, and then later on the evening of Feb. 7  mentioned to Northlands personnel the possibility of an assault.

Merkel said as soon as the student’s story changed his department should have been called per a longstanding agreement between city and Northlands officials regarding serious incidents on the campus.

“They acknowledged the student gave them a different story from the initial story that night, and when they received a different story they should have called us,” he said.

Merkel also said the student felt well enough to walk around after the on-campus assault, which he acknowledged could have caused confusion among Northlands staff.

But Merkel also said that when it became clear that the victim needed medical attention that the Vergennes Area Rescue Squad was not called, and one of his officers confirmed a Northlands staff member drove the student to Porter Hospital.

Fitzgerald’s statement also indicated the two students have been expelled from Northlands, and that DOL officials are looking into the incident:

“Job Corp Center operators are responsible for managing student behavior in accordance with Job Corps policy, which includes a Zero Tolerance policy for drugs and violence. Each center is required to work with local law enforcement agencies regarding the management and jurisdiction of illegal activities. Federal staff conduct regular monitoring of Job Corps centers to ensure compliance with policy and, if applicable, require that corrective actions be taken. Job Corps is currently reviewing this situation with the center’s management.”

Northlands officials have remained silent. Northlands Center Director Dennis Lamberd and center business and community liaison Ian McGaughey were attending a conference in Washington, D.C., last week and did not respond last week to an email to McGaughey or messages left on his cell phone.

On Monday, McGaughey wrote in response to an Independent email seeking Northlands’ side of the story on the events of last week that “Mr. Lamberd is unable to comment at this time due to confidentiality issues and Department of Labor regulations.”

Fitzgerald did not immediately respond to the question of whether DOL regulations would prohibit Northlands officials from addressing last week’s incident.

AGREEMENT VIOLATED?

Merkel went on record last week as saying during his two-year-plus tenure that there have previously been serious incidents that have not been immediately reported to his department.

The city of Vergennes has a signed memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Northlands officials that police will be called after serious crimes. Merkel said he is not concerned with incidents like “shoving matches,” and in 2007, when such an MOU was first signed, it allowed Northlands security to handle cases that include those in which small amounts of marijuana are found.

Merkel said he has led three classes given to all levels of Northlands staff explaining the MOU and the importance of prompt reporting to police, something that he said makes cases much easier to handle and enhances public safety.

Merkel has yet to address Northlands officials directly about last week’s breach of protocol, nor has he looked into exactly why his department wasn’t notified.

“We concluded our investigation up there as far as the criminal aspect,” he said. “As far as the procedural aspect ... we haven’t done that yet because we have been busy with other incidents.”

Merkel hopes to press his point by meeting at some point with Northlands leadership in the company of city officials and a representative of the Addison County state’s attorney’s office.

“We need to have that conversation,” he said.

Vergennes Mayor Michael Daniels said he would like to attend that meeting, and would recommend that City Manager Mel Hawley also sit in. Daniels said Hawley has also contacted the DOL about an issue that he agreed has been a major topic of conversation in the Vergennes area both on the street and in online social media.

“We’re all sharing concerns about how the situation was addressed, and we are working with both the DOL and Northlands to try to rectify that situation so that it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “Mel has been in touch with the DOL because of our concern. We have had an MOU with Northlands, and they haven’t done well with it.”

LONG-RANGE ISSUES

The issue has come up as the DOL’s lease with the state of Vermont for the Northlands campus nears its final year — it is set to expire in mid-2013.

The DOL has been leasing the former Weeks School for troubled teens from the state since 1979, when Northlands was founded.

And when Northlands opened in the city, state and federal officials promised in writing to pay Vergennes to host the center an annual mount of money equal to about 10 percent of the city’s budget, exclusive of fee-based sewer spending. That figure was based on the ratio of students at Northlands — up to nearly 280 — to the city’s population — then around 2,800, now around 2,600 per the 2010 Census.

But in 2000 the DOL ruled those payments were illegal taxes on the federal government. Vermont’s Congressional delegation wrangled $585,000 to cover five more years, but no more money has come since then despite the 1979 promise.

Daniels said the city wants to be heard if Northlands is to remain in Vergennes.

“We want to sit down prior to that (lease expiration) and get things straightened out ... before the 11th hour,” he said.

The city will express two main concerns, Daniels said — finances and public safety.

“We want to look at the options because we know the lease is coming due,” he said. “We want to be at the table for a couple reasons.”

But Daniels is not of the mind that the city should simply lobby to have Northlands leave. He said the center’s 120 jobs matter, Northlands students do a lot of volunteer work in the community, and the center improves the lots in life of many students from around the Northeast and the state — typically between 25 to 30 percent of Northlands students are Vermonters.

“If they leave the city it will affect some of our citizens that are employed there. I cannot speak for the council. I can only speak for myself. They do a lot of good throughout the city,” Daniels said. “We’ve got to figure out how to work together to improve on some situations.”

Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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