VERGENNES — According to several sources, a Northlands Job Corps dormitory has been the scene of regular beatings given to new students by other students over at least the past six months, while at least some Northlands staff and supervisors are aware of and apparently have failed to take steps to halt the violence.
“Dorm 21 is not a friendly place,” said one source, who like the others who talked to the Independent has intimate knowledge of the federal job-training center in Vergennes, but spoke on the condition that their identities remain anonymous.
All the sources said they had not witnessed the alleged beatings, which they said take place in a windowless laundry room in Dorm 21’s basement, but have spoken to both perpetrators and victims.
“They’ve talked to me, bragged to me about it,” said one former Northlands employee, who said those administering the beatings “say they’re smart enough not to hit them (victims) in the face” to avoid leaving obvious evidence of the assaults.
Sources spoke highly of many individuals on the staff, notably in the instructional program at the vocational training center for disadvantaged youth from around the Northeast. The center, which if fully staffed employs about 120, can handle a maximum of 280 students and is typically 90 percent full or more.
The U.S. Department of Labor oversees the national Job Corps program and contracts with private firms to operate the roughly 120 Job Corps centers. Alutiiq LLC, an Alaska company, has operated Northlands since June 2010. Alutiiq’s contract expires in June.
But despite their praise for some staff, the sources alleged other staff members have failed to deal with the beatings.
One source alleged one residential adviser, or RA, (an adult dorm supervisor) “seems to be allowing it to happen,” while another “also is trying to keep it under wraps.” Another previous RA, the source said, brought it to the attention of two supervisors, one of whom said, “she would take care of it. Nothing was done to stop it.”
Another source also named the same two supervisors as being told of the ongoing violence in Dorm 21.
Northlands officials did not respond to attempts to seek comment. Emails were twice sent, on Friday and Tuesday, to the center’s director and business and community liaison, and four phone calls were placed to the business and community liaison.
Department of Labor spokesman Ted Fitzgerald, operating out of the DOL’s regional office in Boston, forwarded the following statement:
“Job Corps centers are operated through contractual agreements with large and small businesses, and non-profit and tribal organizations. Federal Department of Labor staff, which oversee and administer the Job Corps program, conduct regular monitoring of Job Corps centers to ensure compliance with policy and, if applicable, require that corrective actions be taken. In addition, The Department of Labor takes seriously any non-compliance with Job Corps’ policies and procedures. All claims are investigated and corrective action is implemented, where applicable.”
One source said DOL staff members were onsite at Northlands last week, but that statement could not be independently confirmed.
The motives for the beatings are two-fold, sources said.
A former employee that was “for sure, 110 percent” positive the beatings were ongoing since at least September said they were typically administered by the dorm’s student leaders. Each dorm has a student manager, assistant manager, and section leaders. Those who wanted to join the hierarchy have to pay the price, the source said.
“They have to fight the dorm leadership as initiation,” the source said, which results in “five or eight” students who “beat the crap out of” one student in the laundry room.
Other students who were beaten might be perceived as threats to the leadership, or to the minority of students involved in behavior that is either illegal or against center rules, said another source.
“They’re going to jump you the first night in the dorm. The worst part of it is some of the students are in leadership ... They consider it a rite of passage to enter their dorm,” said the source, adding, “It’s the ones they feel are going to ‘quote’ snitch on them. It’s their way to keep people silent, and it works.”
The third source described it this way: “Each dorm has a leadership team of students. What they have been doing in Dorm 21 is initiation beatings. When someone wants to join leadership or is moved into the dorm, the leaders take them down to the laundry room where there are no windows. They then beat the new kid for an unknown amount of time. They hit him in the back, chest and arms so that there are no visible marks.”
One problem all the sources mentioned is the staffing level of Northlands residential living division. Two specifically said there are typically three staff members on duty during the morning and early afternoon hours on Saturday and Sunday, while during the overnight hours of midnight to 8 a.m. there are six or seven RAs asked to cover nine dormitories.
“I worked there for 18 months,” the source said. “We were never fully staffed.”
A list provided by Northlands’ business and community liaison showed no openings for RAs. A phone list obtained by the Independent showed “vacant” listed next to several “R/A” positions.
One source said Northlands staff have to spend the majority of their time dealing with a minority of the students who cause problems: The source referred to what some there call “the 80-20-80 rule,” that 80 percent of the students are there for the right reasons and toe the line, but that 20 percent create trouble and take up 80 percent of employees’ time.
The alleged violence in Dorm 21 has also attracted the attention of Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel.
“We’ve received reports of this from past employees of the Job Corps that incidents of this nature have gone on, and we’re looking into it further,” Merkel said.
Merkel described at least one different source than those who spoke to the Independent.
“Fights and injuries have taken place at the school and have gone unreported and have not been addressed,” he said.
Merkel and city officials are already upset with Northlands over delayed notification of an assault in early February. Vergennes police cited two Northlands students with aggravated assault on Feb. 8 after a Feb. 7 attack that left a 17-year-old fellow student with cervical fractures and a broken nose.
Merkel said it took Northlands personnel 23 hours to notify his department of the assault, and that it was not the first time Northlands personnel has failed to call Vergennes police in a timely manner during his tenure of a little longer than two years.
The problem persists, he said, despite the fact there is a memorandum of understanding signed by city and Northlands officials requiring prompt notification of Vergennes police of serious crimes on the campus.
Merkel hopes to press his point by meeting with Northlands leadership in the company of city officials and a representative of the Addison County state’s attorney’s office. Mayor Michael Daniels said he and City Manager Mel Hawley would attend that meeting, and that Hawley has protested the situation to the DOL.
These issues arise as the DOL’s lease with the state of Vermont for the roughly 60-acre 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 amount 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 to the city’s population — then around 2,800, now around 2,600 per the 2010 Census. For many years in the 1990s, that annual payment hovered at or just above $100,000.
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 last month that city officials want to be heard during negotiations if Northlands is to remain in Vergennes and he will bring up the issues of finances and public safety.
At the same time, Daniels pointed out many positives that Northlands brings to the community. He said the center’s 120 jobs for residents of the region matter; Northlands students do a lot of volunteer work in the community, including cleaning roads on Green Up Day, pruning trees for the city and shoveling walks and driveways for residents; 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.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.