Last March, the Youth Challenge Academy program threw itself a birthday bash at the train depot across from the state Capitol.
It was the 26th anniversary of the Georgia National Guard-sponsored program that uses military-style discipline to reach troubled teens, and the photos from the night presented exactly the image academy administrators hoped.
Smiling cadets posed with Gov. Brian Kemp and performed for U.S. Sen. David Perdue and the state’s top political and military leaders. For years, the academy has relied on such displays to win support from political leaders, and showcase the program’s success at turning at-risk teens into young adults.
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But what happened after the March 2019 gala underscores questions about the program’s ability to supervise its teenage charges, many of whom come from troubled backgrounds and all of whom are at risk of dropping out.
That night, the teens and their adult chaperones stayed in guest rooms at Clay National Guard Center on Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta. Boys and girls were put on separate floors, but a mix of cadets celebrated with “lean” — a concoction made of cough syrup, soda and hard candy — and “Black & Mild” cigars in the cadets’ motel-style rooms without the knowledge of their chaperones, who stayed in their own rooms on the same floor. According to reports, at least two of the teens engaged in sexual intercourse.
The adults only learned of the late-night party sometime after they returned to Fort Stewart near Savannah.
When they learned “underage sex might have occurred,” academy officials took the unusual step of calling the military police and the Department of Family and Children Services, but neither the police nor child welfare officials took action. Consensual sex is not a crime, and all of the cadets involved were either 16- or 17-years-old, above the age of consent in Georgia.
Records released to the AJC show that cadets’ parents were called and reports indicate that the girls involved were punished with loss of rank and privileges. The same records do not list specific discipline for the boys, although one report said a counselor “reviewed consequences given” with the boy’s mother.
In a statement, the National Guard said the chaperones involved “received a reprimand and developed more effective procedures to prevent re-occurrence (sic).” All of the involved cadets stayed with the program and graduated, according to the statement.
In an interview earlier this month, State Adjutant General Thomas Carden defended how the adults at Fort Stewart responded.
“I took a look at those allegations and how we handled it, and I was very, very satisfied in how the team processed that allegation and dealt with it,” he said.
However, he admitted he did not know about the incident until after the AJC began asking questions — nearly a year later.
“I’ve become aware of that, just really, in the last few days,” he said. “But again, that’s not an excuse. It goes back to not what I knew, it’s what should I have known.”
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