The Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy, operated by the Georgia National Guard, aims to instill discipline and character into troubled teens. But an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found a misogynistic culture where female employees have endured demeaning treatment from the men who dominate the campus. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Harassment, sexism rampant at boot camp for troubled teens

Her boss had just finished telling her that she was right — some of her colleagues at the Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy did subject her to racist comments, an internal investigation found. The director, Roger Lotson, said he would take corrective action.

But first, Lotson subjected the teacher to a different kind of humiliation.

“The management has a concern about the dress code policy when it comes down to you,” the academy’s HR manager told the teacher. She went on to explain how the teacher wore clothes that showed off her figure, pants that were too form-fitting. The problem, she said, was her “nice body.”

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“If a fat person wore what you wore, the cadets probably wouldn’t make catcalls,” the manager told her, referring to the teens who drill and live at the academy.

“So now I’m being body shamed?” the teacher fired back. “I am not wearing clothes that are form-fitting. They fit me. I do not get catcalls from cadets. I do not get harassed by cadets. I get harassed by cadre and staff.”

The conversation — secretly recorded and obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution — offers a stark view into a misogynistic, hyper-sexualized culture that has developed inside the Georgia National Guard’s military camp for troubled teens in South Georgia.

While cadets there have been choked and slammed to the ground by adults, female employees have endured sexual harassment and other demeaning treatment from the men who dominate the campus, an investigation by the AJC found.

A pattern of physical violence against cadets at the Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy might never have been discovered were it not for an additional pattern of sexual harassment complaints. The AJC’s reporting on harassment within state government prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to enact reforms, which led to a tracking system that revealed a cluster of complaints within the youth program. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Last year, a sexual harassment investigation revealed some staffers felt such impunity that they had a female staff member dressed in a black bra, panties and boots perform a lap dance inside a supervisor’s office — and recorded it. The cell phone video leaked outside the campus, and Lotson’s handling of the issue showed how a program that claims to drill discipline and character into wayward teens had different standards for grown-ups.

Lotson, who is also a McIntosh County commissioner and a Baptist pastor, retired under pressure this month amid investigations by the AJC and Channel 2 Action News.

The audio recording where a teacher was told that her figure invited sexual harassment was just one example of a dysfunctional workplace. Other sexual harassment cases the AJC reviewed included accounts of alleged victims being told they dress too provocatively, act too friendly, or ironically, not friendly enough.

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Georgia Department of Defense Adjutant General Thomas Carden, the Guard’s top official, expressed disappointment about the behavior in an interview with the AJC.

“Those type comments — I haven’t heard them — but they’re not in keeping with our organizational values and not something I’m happy or proud to hear,” the adjutant general said.

Fort Stewart YCA employee complains of discrimination, is told she's violating dress code.

After the teacher’s meeting with Lotson and the human resources manager, no one at the YCA took up her complaint about harassment from staff. So she emailed Maj. Gen. Carden, accusing a master sergeant of making sexually suggestive comments to her on several occasions. An internal investigation ruled her allegations not sustained, and the teacher soon found herself back in front of Lotson, receiving a write-up for walking out of an ethics training session while her alleged harasser was taking part in a demonstration.

That conversation was recorded too.

“So it seems as though every time I report something, I am being reprimanded subsequently,” the teacher told Lotson, according to the audio obtained by the AJC.

The AJC does not name alleged victims of sexual harassment without their consent. Both Lotson and the HR manager declined interview requests for this story.

A sign posted at the Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy implores cadets to report bullying to a counselor or a drill instructor. Public records reviewed by the AJC showed female employees have suffered ill treatment at the academy, too, including sexism and sexual harassment. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘You need a bigger bra’

The AJC’s reporting over the past two years on sexual harassment within state government agencies prompted Gov. Brian Kemp to make reforms a top priority after his inauguration in January 2019. Those reforms led to a tracking system that revealed a cluster of complaints coming from the Fort Stewart youth program.

Last year two women filed separate complaints claiming that Lt. Anthony Holsendolph had sexually harassed them. In both cases, Department of Defense investigators cleared Holsendolph, who declined to comment for this story.

Investigative reports reveal that the two women who made the complaints were not only disbelieved, they were also criticized.

» RELATED: In #MeToo era, state employees wonder ‘what about me’

» FROM 2019: Kemp orders harassment reform following AJC investigation

The first complainant, a staff counselor, said Holsendolph called her one evening in at home in September 2018 “intoxicated … and made vulgar comments” about a sun dress she had worn to school.

Five months later, she said Holsendolph showed up to help her unlock a stuck door and told her “you need to pull your shirt up and you need a bigger bra.”

The investigative report said Holsendolph acknowledged calling the counselor at home a number of times, but did not recall the specific incident. However, he said the counselor had worn “inappropriate attire” on a number of occasions and said her behavior “could, at times, be too ‘friendly.’”

Campuses closed

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, last week the Georgia National Guard emptied some 350 cadets out of its Youth Challenge Academy and Job Challenge Academy programs at Fort Stewart and in Milledgeville. Parents were told to pick up children by Tuesday evening, and some students went home in state vans, according to David Bill, director of recruiting and outreach. No cadets or staff members showed any virus symptoms, he said. The YCA at Fort Gordon in Augusta hadn’t started its next session yet, so the class has been delayed. All campuses will likely stay closed at least until April 1, Bill said.

 

A second complaint, filed by a former female cadre member Abbigail Hershey, accused Holsendolph of a pattern of abusive behavior. She said Holsendolph photographed her from underneath while she was strapped into a harness on a ropes course and sent her “creepy” text messages.

Rather than have her complaint taken seriously, Hershey said the investigators and administrators “gaslighted” her. Other male cadre called her “emotional” and wanting “lots of attention.”

“I was called every name in the book,” she said.

Some Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy employees staged a lap dance in the office of Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Mayfield, the campus commandant. But Mayfield told the AJC he wasn’t present and didn’t know it had occurred until a video turned up later. RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

By comparison, Holsendolph was described as “outgoing” and charismatic. “Girls find him attractive,” the investigator wrote in his notes.

As the investigation into Hershey’s complaint was being wrapped up, Holsendolph was hit with a third complaint. This time, from a teenage former cadet who had recently graduated from the program and had returned to work as a peer mentor.

The teen accused Holsendolph of forcing her into “full frontal” hugs on several occasions, including one incident privately in his office. The girl said she had tried to avoid him and used other cadets “as a shield” until it became intolerable.

Holsendolph was terminated, although with a recommendation that he could be rehired in the future.

“It is so bizarre to me that they actually allowed it to reach a cadet,” Hershey said. “They waited until it reached (her), and now there is something to be said about his behavior. Now he’s being held accountable.”

The lap dance

In June, YCA Director Lotson received a text message on his cell phone — a scantily-clad woman standing over a man handcuffed to a chair.

The picture was grainy, but setting was unmistakable. They were inside Commandant Joseph Mayfield’s office, with a drill instructor handcuffed to the chair.

“Is this what yall taught my kid and teaching others?” the text sender wrote to Lotson. “This will be sent forward!”

“What am I looking at,” Lotson texted back.

In June, the Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy’s then-director, Roger Lotson, received a text message with a photo of a lap dance taking place in the commandant’s office. “Is this what yall taught my kid and teaching others?” the sender asked. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Lotson quickly determined that the image was part of a video that had been circulating on and off campus, according to investigative documents. In it, music plays as the woman speaks softly and swats the man with a riding crop. The man laughs and says, “Mayfield, I’m gonna get your ass for this!”

Investigative records show Lotson did not notify his bosses with the Georgia Department of Defense about the video’s contents. Col. Wallace Steinbrecher, the state director of Youth Challenge programs at the time, visited the Fort Stewart campus a few weeks later. Lotson didn’t mention the video or the angry text.

Department of Defense headquarters would only launch an investigation after its state personnel director, while reviewing Hershey’s sexual harassment case, found interview notes where she recounted being shown the video by a colleague.

Two employees faced discipline over a lap dance staged in the commandant’s office at the Fort Stewart Youth Challenge Academy: Nikiesha Morris, who was fired for orchestrating it; and ex-Director Roger Lotson, who was suspended for a week without pay for not telling Department of Defense headquarters about it. SPECIAL
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In the end, two people faced discipline. Sgt. Nikiesha Morris, who orchestrated the lap dance as a birthday gag for the man in the chair, was fired for sexual harassment.

For failing to inform headquarters of the video, Lotson was written up and suspended without pay for a week.

Commandant Mayfield, who insisted he wasn’t in the room and had no prior knowledge, avoided any repercussions.

“Sir, if I was present when it occurred, I probably wouldn’t be here today working,” Mayfield told the AJC.

Adjutant General Carden said he’s satisfied that everyone involved with the incident no longer works at the program.

“I totally understand that you can talk to a number of people in any complex investigation, and you’re going to get varying stories about what the truth is,” Carden said. “I believe we made a diligent effort to get to the truth, and I believe we held everybody accountable that was involved in it.”

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