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Conn. Halts Dropout Program as Crime Noted at Guard Camp

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The first state to open a National Guard "challenge camp'' for high school dropouts will also be the first state to shut one down.

The closure of one of the 11 federally funded camps was ordered this month by Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. of Connecticut after the chief state's attorney issued a critical report on the camp.

The June 10 report revealed that the camp had been the scene of assaults--including a group melee now under police investigation and a stabbing with a filed-down toothbrush--as well as sexual activity, marijuana use, attempts by students to recruit others for gang membership, and other illicit activity. Investigators also found that the camp did not establish adequate methods of reporting criminal activity.

The report recommended tighter criminal-record checks for students and staff members, random drug testing of students, the hiring of additional staff, and the recruitment of teachers and other employees with an eye toward increasing racial diversity.

The report also praised some aspects of the $4.7 million program, however, and did not recommend shutting it down.

"Our investigation has disclosed no severe, systemic dysfunction in the program in terms of the National Guard's overall control of the camp and the corps members,'' Chief State's Attorney John M. Bailey said in the report.

In addition, the report said investigators were "impressed with the efforts ... to create and maintain a program which is genuinely intended and designed to help young people who might otherwise find themselves in prison, on public assistance, or homeless.''

Governor Weicker agreed with the report's findings, but felt that the camp, which has drawn significant negative media attention in Connecticut, needed to be closed for the changes to be made, said his press secretary, Doug Quat.

Other Camps Unaffected

"It's a very good program, but we are aware of the fact that some changes are necessary to make it the best program it can be,'' Mr. Quat said last week.

The voluntary program, known as the Connecticut National Guard Youth Challenge Program, was to run 17 months, including five months in the residential camp. It offers troubled youths ages 16 through 18 the chance to complete a General Educational Development test and receive a $2,200 stipend for college or job training.

The program opened last July and is to close July 2, when the camp's second group of residents is set to leave.

So far, about 350 young men and women have entered the residential portion of the program, with about half that number completing it. They will continue to receive the services related to the nonresidential portion of the program.

The Connecticut initiative is part of a three-year pilot program authorized by Congress in 1992 in the National Guard's budget, said Daniel Donohue, a special assistant to the chief of the National Guard bureau and the architect of the program. (See Education Week, Nov. 24, 1993.)

The pilot program received $44 million in fiscal 1993 and $55.8 million this year, Mr. Donohue said.

The shutdown of the Connecticut program will not affect the other camps in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Oklahoma, and West Virginia, he said.

Those facilities have not experienced the same kinds of problems as the one in Connecticut, he said, and some have retention rates above 90 percent.

According to Mr. Donohue, the Connecticut camp's problems stemmed in part from its deviation from procedures recommended for the camps nationwide, particularly drug testing of corps members.

The Connecticut attorney general would not allow drug testing when the camp opened there.

Another five National Guard challenge camps are set to open this summer in Hawaii, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia.

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