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Northlands changes leadership after rise in discipline problems

VERGENNES — Following disciplinary issues and criminal behavior that escalated in March and April, the company that operates Northlands Job Corps in Vergennes has changed leadership at the center, added staff, and continued to review center operations, Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel told the city council on Tuesday.
Merkel said he is hopeful the changes will help. But he had become increasingly frustrated with the burden Northlands had placed on his department, telling the Independent on one recent case alone one of his officers had spent 30 hours and counting conducting an investigation.
In all, his department has dealt with 10 cases at Northlands this year, eight in March and April alone. They include four allegations of assault, four citations for hazing or failure to stop hazing, and three for reckless endangerment, as well as a threat and alcohol offenses.
Merkel at last wrote a letter of complaint to Department of Labor official Clarissa Brown in Boston. The DOL oversees operations of the roughly 120 U.S. Job Corps centers, which are operated by private contractors and provide job training to economically disadvantaged youth and young adults.
That oversight includes Northlands, which for the past year has been operated by Kentucky firm Educational Training Resources ETR. ETR has a five-year contract to operate Northlands with a 25-month base period that ends in May 2020, according to the DOL.
On Tuesday Merkel told the city council that letter appeared to spark a response. He and City Manager Matt Chabot met with ETR Chief Operating Officer Howard Harmon and Director of Center Operations and Support Kathy Higgins on this past Friday and were told of a number of changes, including that Higgins would take over as acting center director from Alicia Grangent.
Merkel also noted DOL representative Erin McGee requested a meeting with him that was scheduled for late Wednesday afternoon to discuss his ideas for more measures, including security cameras and lighting. He expects Northlands to remain under careful scrutiny during ETR’s contract.
Merkel said that in the past two weeks the center has calmed down.
“With these changes I’m pretty optimistic they will turn the corner. It’s been pretty quiet,” he said.
As well as putting Higgins in charge on an interim basis, Merkel said ETR has:
•Increased the staff-to-student ratio, including by upping the number of residential advisers to 33 from 24.
•Conducted a number of corporate reviews of Northlands operations.
•Brought two ETR representatives from its Oneonta, N.Y., center to evaluate operations and make further recommendations.
•Committed to renovating one of the dorms.
Merkel has said that the relationship between his department and Northlands was positive when ET first took over. But a look at this year’s Vergennes police log entries show problems escalating.
In 2019, Vergennes police:
•On Jan. 30 accepted for disposal a pellet gun that a Northlands student had tossed in a campus Dumpster; police said they were told the student had been dismissed from the program.
•On Feb. 5 looked into a situation involving an online threat made among Northlands students.
•On March 7 dealt with a report of an assault at Northlands and decided the incident did not merit charges.
•On March 13 heard from a Northlands student that someone had stolen his driver’s license and used it to rent a U-Haul trailer in Massachusetts, sticking him with a $457 bill.
•On March 16 checked a report of an assault at Northlands and determined it was a verbal dispute.
•On March 16 issued court diversion paperwork to a Northlands student for an alcohol offense.
•On April 2 cited a Northlands student from Brooklyn, N.Y., for simple assault after he allegedly knocked another student to the floor and punched him following a dispute about text messages that police said insulted a female acquaintance of the assailant.
•On April 3 and 4 began investigating allegations from three female Northlands students that a male student had sexually assaulted them.
•On April 14 cited two Northlands students and two Northlands employees in a hazing case. The students allegedly told a Dorm 24 newcomer he could choose from among a menu of initiation activities, including wearing painted fingernails for three days, joining in the Dorm 24 basement Fight Club, having his head dunked in a toilet or licking a toilet seat.
Police cited New Jersey and Vermont students for hazing, and two employees who allegedly knew of the hazing for failing to stop it.
•On April 20 after finding a heavily intoxicated Northlands student on Green Street and taking him to Porter Hospital learned that two other Northlands students had allegedly used the credit card of a student — an 18-year-old Connecticut resident — and allegedly refused to give the card back until he drank an excessive amount of alcohol.
Three students were cited, a New York resident for extortion, making false reports to a police officer, furnishing alcohol to a minor and enabling consumption of alcohol by a minor; a Bennington resident for reckless endangerment (leaving the victim outside knowing that he was heavily intoxicated and vomiting in 45 degree weather), furnishing alcohol to a minor, and enabling consumption of alcohol by a minor; and a Connecticut resident for giving false information to police and reckless endangerment for failing to stop the events.
After the latter two incidents, Merkel decided to act, and he told the council he got results.
“I think our attention got other people’s attention,” he said. 

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