Georgia teen military academy shut down after massive brawl

Fort Gordon (U.S. Army)

A teen military academy in Augusta was shut down after a series of violent episodes culminated in an Oct. 13 brawl among 70 teenagers.

Leaders of the Georgia National Guard’s Youth Challenge Academy at Fort Gordon rushed to meet a new enrollment quota and didn’t properly screen recruits for behavioral and mental health problems, a new report says.

The small staff failed to control uncooperative and violent youths, the investigation found.

Fort Gordon’s acting garrison commander ordered the program shut down and barred every cadet from the fort for a year, citing "the safety of the installation." Program administrators were told they had 24 hours to get all 170 teens off base.

Later, National Guard leaders blamed the cadets, according to records and reports.

Jessica Donaldson, who sent her 16-year-old son, Tristan Hill, to the academy, said she was betrayed by the promise of a structured program that would help her son.

"I was sold a complete lie," she said.

Donaldson said she was called to retrieve her son just days after the five-month program started. Children came home with stories of violence and trauma.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, Georgia National Guard chief Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden and program leaders declined or ignored interview requests.

After Donaldson contacted Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, Deputy Adjutant Gen. Joe Ferrero wrote to the senator on Dec. 27, blaming a group of "belligerent, combative, and violent" students for the breakdown.

Camp Director Jarvise Reid later wrote that she had orders to increase applicants, even if it meant not screening applicants until they arrived on campus. In an Oct. 25 email to Wallace Steinbrecher, state director of the Youth Challenge Academy, Reid said leaders admitted students without reviewing "critical documents" including school disciplinary, mental health and learning disability records.

The program, created in 1993 by Congress, aims to give at-risk students, ages 16 to 18, life skills, counseling, job training and academic instruction in a boot camp setting. Georgia has Youth Challenge Academies at Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart, southwest of Savannah.

The National Guard says the program is not an alternative punishment for kids who break the law.

In March 2020, an investigation into the Fort Stewart academy found the camp’s instructors physically abused cadets and sexually harassed female staff.

Georgia’s sites closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the program has struggled to regain pre-COVID enrollment levels, and graduation rates have been significantly lower, state data show.

Fort Gordon’s academy has a history of violent incidents, reports show, with staff members calling military police or sending injured students to hospitals.

Fighting began almost immediately after students arrived at Fort Gordon on Oct. 10, students and parents said, culminating in an Oct. 13 riot on a parade ground. Some students fought with metal shanks, crudely sharpened toothbrushes and tube socks filled with metal padlocks. Some boys may have had rival gang affiliations, parents and students said.

"Somebody came up and drilled him on the side of the head," Donaldson said of her son, Tristan Hill. "Some other kids – a bigger kid – came and helped him up and helped him fight off two other kids."

The next day, another massive fight occurred. According to the report, 25 students rushed a barracks where seven other students were held for safety reasons "due to gang-related issues."

Again, military police were called. The police found "numerous shanks" and socks with padlocks. That’s when the garrison commander ordered the academy closed.

Brinsina Copeland said her son, Devonte, suffered bruised ribs as well as cuts on his back and arms. Days after returning home, Copeland said he was waking up at night, shaking with nightmares. Copeland said her son’s dreams of a military career were shattered at Fort Gordon.

"These kids went through a traumatic experience, a real traumatic experience," Copeland said.

Besides the failure to screen students, a draft report also identified staff shortages and other problems. But guard officials mostly emphasized the high-risk students involved.

"The YCA is dedicated to help our troubled youth and we cannot run an ‘at-risk’ youth program at zero risk. We do not have the infrastructure, staffing, or training to run something along the lines of a regional youth detention center," Lt. Col. Pamela Stauffer said.