Federal officials have suspended classes at Homestead Job Corps after four students were arrested and charged with the savage machete murder of a teen.
The move comes as political leaders are expressing alarm over security lapses at Job Corps campuses across the United States — concerns also raised in a recent audit that revealed the program consistently failed to boot “dangerous students” from its ranks.
Run by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Job Corps program helps at-risk young people get their high-school diplomas and learn vocational skills ranging from masonry to office administration. The program services about 60,000 students at 125 residential campuses across the country.
The Labor Department Inspector General’s Office is now engaged in a wide-ranging probe of security and violence at campuses across the country.
Miami-Dade police earlier this month arrested four former Homestead Job Corps students for the June murder of fellow student Jose Amaya Guradado, 17, who went missing. A few days later, Jose was found hacked to death and buried in a shallow grave in the woods near the campus.
“The lack of supervision is incomprehensible, as is the lackadaisical manner in which the administration treated a missing student,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told the Miami Herald in a statement this week. “The administrators of the Homestead center didn’t look for the student and didn’t communicate with the family.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who represents the neighborhood where the campus is located, said she welcomes an internal investigation into the program — which is operated by a private Kentucky company called ResCare.
“I sincerely hope that there will be safeguards put in place so that students can at the very least feel safe on campus,” she said.
Fall enrollment at the Homestead campus was suspended after the arrests, according to a Labor Department memo sent to members of Congress. Seventeen students who remained there during the summer break were moved to other campuses.
Classes will be suspended until at least Sept. 9 as officials review campus security procedures.
“At Homestead, the operator’s performance is currently under review and contractual actions will be taken if appropriate,” acting assistant secretary Adri Jayaratne wrote in a letter this month to Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley.
This is not the first time students from the Homestead campus have come under law enforcement scrutiny.
In 2006, five Job Corps students were arrested after being found inside a nearby abandoned warehouse — near the Homestead Air Force Reserve Base — that had been turned into a gang member hangout, a story first reported by the Miami Herald. In one room, detectives found paper targets, bullet casings and BBs on the ground. Another room apparently was used for interrogations and beatings of members.
The students were all dismissed from the program.
Headlines have been increasingly negative for Job Corps, which has been in existence since the early 1960s.
In April, authorities say, a 20-year-old student shot his roommate to death on the St. Louis Job Corps campus. In 2012, a security guard raped a drunk, passed-out student at an Oregon campus; he has since pleaded guilty.
Jose’s gruesome murder in June shocked South Florida. Arrested were Kaheem Arbelo, 20, Desiray Strickland, 20, Christian Colon, 19, and Jonathan Lucas, 18. At least one more student is being sought in connection with the murder.
Authorities say Arbelo, Colon and Lucas all confessed to luring Jose into the woods near the government-run residential school in deep south Miami-Dade. The fellow students “ambushed the victim” — he was hacked so many times with the machete that his “face caved in,” according to an arrest report.
The mortally wounded teen was forced to lie in a shallow grave before the final blows were inflicted. According to an arrest report, Strickland grew upset because she missed the first series of machete strikes when she went into the woods to urinate.
After cleaning up the crime scene, she and Arbelo allegedly had sex in the woods before returning to the Job Corps campus. Jose’s brother later found the body while searching for his sibling.
Law enforcement sources have described the arrested students as part of a group of bullies within the school, where Arbelo is believed to have dealt drugs. Investigators believe the killing may have stemmed from a debt that the victim owed to Arbelo.
Troubles with oversight at Job Corps campuses are nothing new. In two earlier audits in 2009 and 2010, the Department of Labor’s Inspector General’s Office found “lax enforcement” of disciplinary policies.
A third audit in February found that at 11 campuses across the country, including Homestead, “serious misconduct infractions” went unreported or were improperly downgraded.
“By retaining potentially dangerous students who should have been discharged, centers exposed other students and staff to avoidable, potential harm and occupied training slots that could have been used by committed, at-risk youth,” Assistant Inspector General Elliot Lewis wrote in the report.
The audit found that staff members downplayed incidents, or avoided kicking students out, to give them a second chance but also to “avoid adverse effects on their performance outcomes.”
“The Labor Department is responsible for the safety of these students. If it can’t ensure their safety, it needs to reconsider everything about the way this program is run,” Sen. Grassley wrote in a letter. “The zero tolerance policy for violence needs to mean something. It obviously doesn’t at too many Job Corps centers right now.”
The Homestead campus is run by ResCare, which has come under scrutiny before. In 2010, an audit found the company was not ensuring compliance on issues of safety and student misconduct at its Miami Job Corps campus. ResCare staffers “did not always report significant incidents, such as physical assault or possession of a weapon on center.”
A ResCare spokeswoman on Friday referred calls to the Labor Department.
The federal agency says it is implementing better oversight and safety measures at the recommendation of the Inspector General’s latest report. The Labor Department is also seeking an extra $3.5 million to pay for 17 new employees to help “coordinate oversight” at regional offices.
“The department takes issues of student safety and security very seriously and they continue to be a top priority for our Job Corps program,” Jayaratne wrote in his letter to Grassley.