19 ChalleNGe teens charged in melee

By Sherry Matthews - [email protected]

See names of those charged in Crimewatch, A2

SALEMBURG — A free-for-all that began at Tarheel ChalleNGe Academy early Sunday evening and involving myriad cadet candidates ranging in age from 16 to 18 ended with 19 of them jailed and several teens and academy employees injured.

The injuries were minor and the altercation did not involve weapons.

Sampson County Sheriff’s Lt. Marcus Smith confirmed that deputies were called to 600 N. Main St. in Salemburg, the site of the academy, around 7 p.m. because of a melee involving dozens of teenagers. When officers arrived, some 60 people were on the school grounds, but ChalleNGe employees had already diffused the situation, separated those involved in the altercation and placed them in the dorms.

“It saddens me that this happened,” said Col. Edward Timmons, state director of the academy, in acknowledging the melee which began when some of the new males on campus got “mouthy” and a fight erupted.

“My cadre did a tremendous job of quelling the issue and getting everyone back to the dorms,” Timmons acknowledged reiterating, however, how sorry he was that the melee even began.

Those taken into custody were charged with public disturbance and simple affray, and were placed under separate $5,000 bonds. Their court dates are set for Feb. 20.

Timmons said of the 19 taken into custody and hauled away by a sheriff’s van, eight have already been released from the program and an internal inquiry into the situation is underway.

“Safety, health and welfare are our number one priorities,” Timmons said. “With that as our focus, we are closely looking at the situation.”

Calling the situation “an embarrassment,” Timmons said the eight who were released had been given “one, two and three opportunities” but their actions had put them on the fast track for an immediate decision on their candidacy.

Those involved are part of the latest class of cadet candidates who arrived at the academy Jan. 6 and are going through what Timmons called the “acclimation phase,” a process that helps weed out those who are academy staff do not believe will be conformant or compliant. A total of 153 started with the class. That has now been culled to 139, including the eight who were released after Sunday’s fight.

“Anytime you have a new class, there is a period of time where they have to get acclimated to a very stringent program. They don’t know us and we certainly don’t know them as well as we will as we move into the second, third and fourth month of their time here.”

During that time, cadet candidates get training, which was delayed for this class because of the recent snow, and begin the adjustment phase which Timmons called an awakening for many of the young men and women.

“I am sorry and embarrassed that this happened,” Timmons stressed. “Unfortunately we see this from time to time when a new class arrives. There is an adjustment period. But we have a good team here that gets things under control pretty fast, and we have a good relationship with law enforcement who help us when we need it.”

Smith said deputies went in to help and came away with 19 of those who had not easily been brought under control.

“Hopefully our presence and our actions send a strong message that we are not going to tolerate that kind of behavior,” the lieutenant stressed.

Timmons said the academy was all about changing behaviors, and for many the time there is both rewarding and life-changing. But there are some who can’t make it for one reason or another, he said, and there are those, like the eight dismissed Sunday, who the academy chooses to release because of opportunities not seized.

Tarheel ChalleNGe is a quasi-military program for high school dropouts, or those expelled from school who, if left unguided, could be headed for trouble. The program concentrates on providing these young adults with the discipline and life skills necessary to be productive members of society.

By Sherry Matthews

[email protected]

Publisher Sherry Matthews can be reached at 910-592-8137.

Publisher Sherry Matthews can be reached at 910-592-8137.