State lawmakers received a report this month about the recent mid-program closure of the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy.
The course was shut down indefinitely in September, when Class 46 of the Challenge Academy was in the middle of its residency phase at Camp Guernsey.
Lander resident Forrest Kamminga’s son was one of those Class 46 cadets.
“To get the announcement that he was coming home and they were shutting down the program was literally like watching a rug get pulled out from underneath him (and the) wind totally taken out of his sails,” Kamminga told the Wyoming Legislature’s Transportation, Highways, and Military Affairs Committee this month. “It was extremely tough. (We had to) pick up the pieces and figure out how to put it back together.”
He asked the committee why state officials hadn’t been able to “forecast” the staffing shortages that led to the closure this year.
“They had to have known that they were starting to lose employees,” Kamminga said. “They had to know that these issues were coming. …
“I question why they even recruited Class 46 if they kind of saw this coming down the road.”
Wyoming Adjutant General Greg Porter said 39 of the Challenge Academy’s 48 authorized, full-time employee positions were staffed when Class 46 began its residency phase in July.
Later that month, however, he said the National Guard Bureau conducted an inspection at Camp Guernsey and determined that the Challenge Academy did not meet its staff-to-cadet ratio requirement – a situation that “exposes (the program) to numerous potential legal liabilities.”
In response to the “unsatisfactory” inspection report, Porter said state officials initiated a “process of corrective actions” at Camp Guernsey.
That’s when they “really started to observe some chronic absenteeism in employees,” he said.
“With the operations section that’s particularly disturbing,” Porter noted. “That’s the direct interface with the cadets. It really started to get to be an average daily rate of seven folks being out every day, out of the 18. …
“We really needed some augmentation.”
In an attempt to address the situation as quickly as possible, Porter said seven soldiers and airmen were placed on state active duty at Camp Guernsey to “help sort of fill the gap” and try to “get this class to the December graduation date.”
But the issues with staffing persisted: On the day state officials decided to close the Challenge Academy, Porter said 10 cadet team leader and supervisor positions were vacant, and two people had called in sick.
“We just couldn’t get the staff to be there,” Porter said. “We were not able to assure (cadet) safety with the lack of people that we had.”
He traveled to Guernsey on Sept. 14 to announce the shutdown to students and staff, and Porter said the experience was “just as awful as I anticipated it would be.”
“The employees were shocked, they were hurt, they were angry – they certainly didn’t see it coming,” he said. “The cadets were of the same mind. They were confused. They didn’t really understand what was going on.”
Twenty-nine of the cadets have since transferred to youth challenge programs in other states, Porter said, while 33 went home to their parents and guardians and either returned to high school or enrolled in a high school equivalency program.
‘Not the mission’
Moving forward, Porter recommended that the state conduct a study to help determine whether the Challenge Academy program should be reinstated, or whether “other alternatives” might be more appropriate “to support Wyoming’s at-risk youth population.”
“It’s clearly not the mission of the Wyoming Military Department to run a program for at-risk youth,” said Erica Legerski, a policy advisor for Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon.
Legerski agreed with Porter that the state should undertake a “comprehensive study” of the situation, and she suggested reaching out to the Wyoming Department of Education and the Wyoming Department of Family Services to see if those agencies could “help support the program.”
The Transportation Committee directed state staffers to draft a letter in support of a study to determine the best path forward.