Originally created 05/04/02

Controversy surrounds youth campus' acting director



The acting director of the Augusta Youth Development Campus has decided he doesn't want to run the facility anymore. Mitchell Sowell will be reassigned to another position within the Department of Juvenile Justice, according to a spokeswoman for the department.

Mr. Sowell's decision not to apply for the director's post comes amid allegations of racial discrimination and employee discord at the campus - a long-term rehabilitation facility for youths sentenced by courts or committed to Department of Juvenile Justice custody.

His last day of work at the campus was Friday, but an administrator said he called in sick.

According to Mark Cicero of the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity, three employees of the Augusta campus have filed complaints since October, when Mr. Sowell became acting director. The complaints are filed dually with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Employees also sounded off in two articles in The Metro Courier, an Augusta weekly newspaper, in which they said tensions between whites and blacks are threatening safety at the campus.

Employees say Mr. Sowell's leadership has created a "good ol' boy" system in which promotions and disciplinary actions are given unevenly to whites and blacks. Lucy Harris, a 62-year-old licensed practical nurse, said she filed a complaint for race and age discrimination after being written up four times for technical errors involving medications.

She said she had documented at least 17 incidents in which white nurses made similar mistakes but weren't reprimanded. She said she believes some of the white part-time nurses are after her full-time position.

"You have a lot of animosity," Mrs. Harris said of her work environment. "It's like dog-eat-dog. You don't have anybody working together."

Juvenile Correctional Officer Patricia Walker filed a complaint saying she was denied a promotion and demoted from a supervisory position after she made her feelings about Mr. Sowell's management known. Registered Nurse Myra Cyrus also complained of retaliation, harassment and unlawful hiring. After her work hours were reduced, she was fired and replaced with a white nurse, Ms. Cyrus said.

Officer Walker, who has been on paid administrative leave since February, said hostilities between Mr. Sowell and black employees began in December 2000, when, as an assistant director, Mr. Sowell was accused of grabbing a guard by his shirt collar and injuring his knee.

According to a report written by Officer Keith Kahn, Mr. Sowell had ordered him to send a boy in leg irons down a ladder from the roof of a building. When the boy refused to go down the ladder, Officer Kahn asked for a van to be driven up to the building to lower the boy down. Later, when Officer Kahn came down the ladder, Mr. Sowell grabbed his shirt and pulled him close, the report says. Officer Kahn said he asked Mr. Sowell several times not to put his hands on him.

The incident left the officer with a hurt knee, causing a trip to an emergency room and 15 days of bed rest, the report says.

Efforts to reach Mr. Sowell were unsuccessful. He did not respond to messages passed along through YDC Assistant Director Elliot Norman and Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Jaci Vickers.

Ms. Vickers said Mr. Sowell will likely work as a program manager for a regional administration office, but she was unsure where.

The department is still awaiting its report from Cameron & Associates, an employee assistance firm hired to resolve differences at the campus. Commissioner Orlando Martinez is concerned about the climate there, and is planning a personal visit next week, Ms. Vickers said.

"It's a situation that has occurred over time," Ms. Vickers said. "The remedy of that will take time as well."

What's next: Department of Juvenile Justice Regional Administrator Pat Donaldson will fill in as acting director of the Augusta Youth Development Campus until a permanent director can be found. Three complaints against the facility filed with the Georgia Commission on Equal Opportunity are under review, and rulings could be made within the next two weeks.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.