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Investigation underway at BRCC over student's credentials

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BATON ROUGE - Serious questions are being raised about hundreds of credentials students received at Baton Rouge Community College.

Out of state investigators are digging deep into records at BRCC this week. It centers around hundreds of students who received credentials for trade jobs, where there's no proof they met all of the requirements.
     
All of this focuses on the multi-million dollar TAACCCT grant, or "Trade Adjustment Community College and Career Training." At least 400 students went through the federal grant-funded program, which required classes and hands-on work in order to earn its credentials, but hundreds of those students may have received credentials they did not earn.

The TAACCCT grant was supposed to help people learn a craft like pipe fitting and welding. Tonight, everything BRCC has done with this program over the past few years is being closely scrutinized by investigators from the national organization that puts their names on those credentials.

Vincent Lee proudly holds the credentials he received from BRCC this year. The certificates he's holding show he's a certified pipe fitter.

"I feel like I accomplished more," Lee said.

Despite having those credentials, Lee hasn't been able to find work since he received them. Part of that reason, could be his physical disability. Vincent Lee has been considered legally blind since he was born. Despite that blindness, Lee managed to get a certification showing he's a pipe fitter. The TAACCCT program at BRCC trained students for things like welding, industrial maintenance and pipe fitting. Lee was among 410 students who sailed through, but didn't complete all of the work.

Jeff Almond was Lee's teacher. 

"He tried hard and was a fair student, but with his handicap, no one can hire him for an industrial type job," Almond said. "It's too dangerous."

Almond witnessed an unusual number of students getting certified for work they never completed last year.

"I was told they didn't care if anyone got a job," Almond said. "The only concern they had was getting them through the program and out the door."

The "they" instructor Jeff Almond is talking about is program director Dr. Girard Melancon and Director of Craft Initiatives Amanda Stanley. Almond says he reported discrepancies to them, and nothing was done.

Almond estimates only 50-60 of the 400 students who went through the program legitimately earned their certifications. His claims are backed up by multiple other sources the Investigative Unit has at BRCC who confirmed this. One employee at BRCC was too afraid to give a name or show a face out of fear of retaliation.

"I can't sleep at night," the employee said. "This is something that is a huge injustice."

The Investigative Unit has been combing through dozens of student records leaked to us for months. At least 50 of them back up exactly what Almond and this employee are saying. Students got credentials despite failing tests, or not completing portions of their required hands on activities. In order to get a credential, everything needs to be completed.

So we had to ask if there was anyway this could be classified as a paperwork mistake or a clerical error.

"No," the employee responded.

Both of these BRCC employees say it was people in the program who were entering students into a computer system to "pass" them when they failed tests or didn't complete work.

The National Center for Construction Education and Research or NCCER has a team on campus. They are looking at hundreds of student records including Vincent Lee's. Lee received a certification but didn't complete all the work. Tonight, they are reviewing everything BRCC did.

It follows an audit the school already conducted. We made multiple requests to talk to Dr. Girard Melancon who was over the TAACCCT program, but were told we couldn't interview him. Instead, the school provided its spokesman.

"Our goal right now is to focus on and determine if there are errors in the program...and second determine the nature and third if there are what action we'll take," Spokesman Steven Mitchell said.

We had to ask why BRCC would issue credentials to students who didn't earn them. 

"Again, I don't want to speculate until our assessment is complete," Mitchell said.

As this investigation moves full steam ahead, the TAACCCT program will end next month, since BRCC didn't get the grant money to continue it. Tonight, employees say those over the program should be held accountable for failing students like Vincent Lee.

"We wasted that child's time and gave him hope that he could get a job making money," one employee said.

"They did a disservice to the students, taxpayers and contractors here in town," Almond said.

As for Vincent Lee, he's hoping this story will show despite his disability, he's willing to work even if it isn't in the pipe fitting industry.

"I'm just hoping a blessing comes," Lee said.

BRCC determined that the problem was serious enough to conduct an internal audit as we were investigating them.

Tonight, BRCC won't say whether it will be required to pay the money back from the TAACCCT grant. However it did say a corrective action plan will be drawn up, and that could include disciplining the employees over the program.

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