Reopening Cowboy Challenge Academy seen as an uphill battle
May 25, 2023
CHEYENNE - State lawmakers have been tasked with studying how to reopen the Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy following its closure in September due to sustained staff vacancies and safety concerns.
The Wyoming Military Department made it clear Thursday to the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Committee that it will be an uphill battle.
"The decision to close the WCCA was necessary to assure the safety of cadets, given the inability to meet the National Guard Bureau (NGB) standards for the supervision of the minors during the 24/7 resident program," according to a presentation given by WMD Director of the Commander's Action Group Chris Smith. "At the time, the program was missing 18 personnel, including six cadet team leaders (who supervised the cadets) and an additional four cadre supervisor positions."
While staffing concerns were emphasized at the committee meeting, the Wyoming Military Department also faced backlash in November from legislators for an inspection done last summer by the NGB.
The academy received an overall unsatisfactory rating for not meeting cadre-to-cadre ratio and exposing the school to "numerous potential legal liabilities."
A 169-page report outlined unsatisfactory health, operational, performance, resource management compliance and financial performance ratings. Some concerns pointed out were that employees were found to have unsupervised access to cadets without a criminal background screening, and the program didn't conduct a criminal background or sex offender screening on mentors.
Other failures noted included deaths and critical injuries not being reported immediately to the program office by phone; lack of proper investigations into hands-off leadership violations, including profanity; and improperly administering and documenting cadet drug testing.
The program's inability to meet the staffing ratio required by the federal program rules despite efforts to increase staff was the largest issue, though, and the Military Department was unaware NGB had adopted a new process in 2010 to stand up a program, including a point-based scorecard.
Smith said since the Cowboy Challenge Academy was established in 2006, it went under the radar when it came to new criteria called the "Challenge Site Suitability and Readily Assessment" for starting programs. The committee asked why so many years passed without academy administrators knowing of the standards and what they planned to do differently in the future.
"Because we had a program that was running, the criteria had no application," Smith said. "It only applies when you're trying to open a program."
But it will apply to their efforts to restart the program now, and military leaders aren't sure they'll ever be able to meet the criteria.
There are 15 criteria points that receive scores, and the areas considered most critical in Wyoming were the actual high school annual dropout numbers, minimum space requirements for a proposed facility, ensuring at least 50,000 people live within a one-hour drive time (50 miles) and having enough of a labor force to meet the needs of students.
While a February preliminary assessment showed there are options to open a facility in Casper or Douglas, Cheyenne or Laramie, or to partner with another Challenge program, they still can only move forward with this plan if the NGB waives the minimum dropout rate for the state.
The minimum high school dropout requirement is 4,000 dropouts in the state, and Wyoming had 1,235 dropouts in 2022, according to the Wyoming Department of Education.
The state has also never exceeded 1,300 dropouts in a year, and officials said the waiver of the criteria may not be easily obtained, since the academy never met the 100 cadets class size requirement, either.
Other struggles were identified when it came to the cost of purchasing and refurbishing an entirely new facility; finding one with spaces such as dining halls, laundry or classrooms; and meeting the minimum population requirement. Cheyenne and Casper meet the 50,000-person criteria on their own, and Douglas and Laramie can only meet it with the inclusion of Casper and Cheyenne, respectively.
The final key criteria point officials were concerned with was workforce. Forty- eight staff members are required, spanning a director, counselors, officers and 18 cadres that have hardline qualifications.
The former Cowboy Challenge Academy struggled to hold onto staff, especially cadres working hands-on with the teens, and there were doubts expressed that the Military Department could compete with salaries or future job growth rates necessary.
Smith said the ideal candidate is mature, can pass a background check, has some military experience and is experienced working with troubled youth. He said it is an interesting pool, and everyone is looking to hire that kind of person.
Officials from the Wyoming Department of Corrections and the Wyoming Boys' and Wyoming Girls' Schools testified in the committee and shared similar hiring difficulties when it came to salary and qualified personnel.
Wyoming Boys' School Superintendent Dale Weber said it is hard to work with troubled youth, and not knowing the kind of young people that go to the Wyoming Challenge Academy, they get some of the toughest in the state at the Boys' School.
"We get really violent young men, very angry young men. That's been as much a reason that we've lost a lot of people is that they get burned out," said Weber. "It's hard to come to work every day and get somebody trying to punch you in the mouth – and still try to show them the care and support that our staff do. And they do an amazing job with it. I can't say enough good things about our staff.
"But Rep. (Ryan) Berger is right, it takes a special person. And that has definitely been a challenge for us to keep those really good people and then to find more that are willing to do it."
With these challenges in mind, the alternative to reopening was to send Wyoming students to other states' programs.
The Wyoming cadet cost in total was $799,700 a year for two classes of 25 cadets, and that doesn't factor in the transportation costs or in-state staff needed to operate the program.
Stakeholders at the meeting said they wanted to try their best to find solutions, but members of the Joint Transportation Committee had to weigh whether they would recommend to keep the program open and pay for students to transfer outside of the state, attempt to find an in-state facility or let go of the Cowboy Challenge Academy program altogether.
Legislators fell on either side of the issue.
Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, was one committee member who was concerned with receiving a waiver for the NGB criteria, as well as the cost to keep the program afloat to send students out of state. While the challenges were kept in mind, other lawmakers said they wanted to try their best to keep Wyoming students in the state.
"My personal opinion: it's a good program," said Rep. Clarence Styvar, R-Cheyenne. "I've had a nephew go through and did outstanding. Everybody I've talked to that went through this program, they're Wyoming residents and outstanding. We need to consider keeping Wyoming kids in Wyoming."
In the end, the committee decided to have legislation drafted for consideration in the interim session.
The committee passed a motion to draft one bill to authorize the continuation of the program at its basic level of funding in order to send students out of state, which will have to go through the appropriations review process before the next budget session.
This was followed up by a second bill draft to seek an NGB criteria waiver to start a new program and proceed to pay for a level-one and level-two study if it's approved.
This story was published on May 26, 2023.