Cowboy Challenge Academy understaffed and deemed risk for cadets
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne November 4, 2022
CHEYENNE (Tribune News Service) — State lawmakers criticized Wyoming Military Department officials for deciding to close the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy in September amid an inability to keep and find personnel.
“The decision was not made lightly,” Adjutant General Greg Porter responded during a report to the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee. “We were not able to ensure their safety with the lack of people.”
The most recent class began with 82 cadets, and 39 of the 48 authorized full-time staff, with vacancies that included the deputy director. An inspection was done in July, and Porter said the school received an overall unsatisfactory rating in August from the National Guard Bureau for not meeting the cadre-to-cadet ratio, and exposing the school to “numerous potential legal liabilities.”
The program’s director retired days after the summary was received, and chronic absenteeism was noticed by Chief of Joint Staff Col. Holly Shenefelt. There were an average of seven daily vacancies among a staff of 18. WCCA’s mission is “to provide a safe, disciplined and professional learning environment that empowers non-traditional learners (ages 16-18) to improve their educational level and employment potential and become responsible productive citizens.”
Although Gov. Mark Gordon authorized Wyoming National Guard service members to augment staff to get the class to graduation in December, it was decided that the program at Camp Guernsey would be shut down to keep cadets safe.
Porter said he informed the staff on Sept. 14 the closing, and it was as awful as he anticipated. He said employees were shocked, hurt, angry and “they certainly did not see it coming.” Students had a similar reaction.
Forrest Kamminga said his son had just hit his stride. The dad said his child endured homesickness, became a platoon leader and was doing well at WCCA. Kamminga questioned why it recruited a new class and didn’t see the closure coming sooner.
“To get the announcement that he was coming home and they’re shutting down the program was literally like watching a rug get pulled out from underneath him,” Kamminga testified. “What do you do with them when they come home?”
Arrangements were made for students to return home, where they could chose to take online WCCA classes, or to take them to other such programs.
Legislators asked why they weren’t informed at the meeting in August. Porter said officials thought they could recover and make fixes from the inspection, to at least continue until December. He apologized for not getting inspection reports sooner, adding he had no intention of withholding information.
“We need to look at this 169-page report comprehensively and have further discussions on the failed leadership, because this is what it boils down to,” said Rep. Clarence Styvar, R- Cheyenne. “Being prior service military myself, this has failed the leadership portion of this, if this goes back as far as it has.”
He said he wanted to understand how the academy went downhill, because as he scanned the unsatisfactory report by the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Inspection Program, he said many of the issues should have never occurred.
Although Porter said the main reason for closing was staffing, there were other inspection findings. The academy’s overall health rating and operations compliance component declined from marginal to unsatisfactory, its performance remained unsatisfactory, and the resource management compliance and financial performance fell from excellent and outstanding to unsatisfactory.
Employees were found to have unsupervised access to cadets without a criminal background screening, and the program doesn’t conduct a criminal background or sex offender screening on mentors.
Failures noted included deaths and critical injuries not being reported immediately to the program office by phone; lack of proper investigations into hands-off leadership violations, including profanity; and improperly administering and documenting cadet drug testing.
Recommendations were to put security cameras outside restrooms, and add doors or curtains to toilet and shower stalls.
Other budgetary, drug-testing, investigation and training issues were outlined, and the WCCA was reported to have had a “significant number of Serious Incident Reports (SIRs), including a high percentage of law enforcement involvement.”
“I’m deeply disappointed in this outcome,” said Sen. Brian Boner, R- Douglas. “When I was on active duty, I expected folks under my supervision to come to me with solutions, not problems. I know we’ve all heard about the staffing issues for some time, but that’s all we heard of this problem.”
Boner said he was disappointed with how things were handled. He wanted the focus to be on moving forward.
The Wyoming Military Department has recommended an interim study, which would “determine feasibility of standing up the program in other locations within the state or other alternatives.” Lawmakers sought a look into hiring and recruitment strategies, and working with outside organizations such as the Department of Education or Department of Family Services.
Concurrence came from Gov. Gordon on a study, as well as calling into question the role of the department at WCCA. Senior Policy Analyst Erica Legerski said while the governor’s office found it valuable, it is not the core mission of the Wyoming Guard. She said that needed to considered, as well as staffing and location.
“Can we sustain that? Can we have those kids be successful?” she asked. “Because we need to make sure that we have all of those components, so that we don’t stand up a program and then find ourselves in trouble again.”
Members of the committee agreed to find a solution, because if a program isn’t supported by the state, they would have to pay to put at-risk youth elsewhere.
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