In late March, a group of students from Justice Reskill’s front-end coding cohort logged onto their computers early on a Saturday morning, ready to take their final exam.
It had been a rocky week for the Denver-based nonprofit, which once garnered big dollars from some of Colorado’s top funders, promising to teach coding skills to people involved in the criminal justice system and help them find high-paying tech jobs.
Just three days before the final, their only instructor was laid off. The surprising decision came a day after The Denver Post contacted the nonprofit’s CEO, Aaron Clark, regarding allegations that he wasn’t always paying his employees, contractors and outside vendors across three companies and two states.
Without a teacher, three Justice Reskill students told The Post, Clark said he’d administer the free course’s final exam. So the students studied and logged on that morning, ready to finish what they say had been a disappointing program. The back-end curriculum? Never developed. The paid apprenticeship that was supposed to follow the class? Never happened.
The students waited, messaging each other on Slack. Clark never showed up, they said.
“You take these people fresh out of prison and you promise them the world,” said Zach Dekraai, 40, one of the Justice Reskill students. “Then you take it out from under them.”
Since The Post published its report on Clark’s pattern of not paying workers and contractors, Justice Reskill appears to be near its end – if it’s not there already. The Justice Reskill Foundation and LLC are both listed as “noncompliant” on the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office business page. The nonprofit’s Facebook page vanished. All Instagram posts have been deleted.
“Community is a core value at Justice Reskill,” the nonprofit’s website still states. “… And the community doesn’t end when you graduate – we’ll stick with you as you launch your career and start to make your mark on the tech industry and the world.”
Those students, though, have largely moved on without the organization. Some are driving DoorDash food delivery or exploring work in the cannabis industry. Others have found coding boot camps to continue their pursuit in tech.
Students who went through the program said that it wasn’t all bad. They learned skills that they can take to the outside world. Clark helped them with rent when they were low on cash and wrote character letters to district attorneys. Justice Reskill provided free therapy sessions and professional headshots.
“The opportunity they exposed me to, I’m 100% grateful I came across it,” Dekraai said. “But at the same time, don’t dangle a carrot in front of my face and then don’t give me the carrot.”
Clark, who did not respond to questions from The Post for this story or the initial article, is now embroiled in mounting legal issues.
He already faced a lawsuit from a Denver recruiting agency, Diverse Talent, which alleged Clark defrauded them by not paying in full after the company placed three executive officers with Justice Reskill. Those executives had been placed after most of the company’s leadership had quit when Clark went two months without paying them last year.
Last month, Clark was hit with another lawsuit – this time from his former attorney. Cynthia Wellbrock alleged Clark failed to pay nearly $ 4,000 in legal fees after Clark hired her to negotiate a settlement agreement with a host of former employees. These staffers previously told The Post that Clark owed them tens of thousands in unpaid wages.
“Despite repeated demands, defendants have refused to pay Wellbrock for the legal services she provided,” the lawsuit says.
“Extremely supportive environment”
Justice Reskill’s students didn’t know about any of these concerns when they signed on to a program they thought could help turn their lives around. In fact, at least one Colorado court system promoted the nonprofit.
One former student who went through the coding program said he heard about Justice Reskill through Boulder County’s pre-trial supervision team.
“They said, ‘If you go through this program, the court will consider this favorably,'” said the former student, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to preserve his job prospects as an individual with a criminal record.
Alice Kim, a spokesperson for the Boulder County Community Services Department, said in an email that three or four of their clients received information about Justice Reskill, but couldn’t say how many actually enrolled in the program. Once court officials read The Post’s initial story, Kim said, the county stopped providing Justice Reskill as a resource.
Initially, Clark seemed like a fantastic champion, the former student said. The CEO even wrote a letter to Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty on the student’s behalf, touting his perfect attendance record, connection to other students and positive addition to the cohort, according to the letter reviewed by The Post.
When he was going through personal issues and missed a week of class, Clark called the student to check up on him.
“There was this extremely supportive environment,” the individual said.
The carrot being dangled in front of these students: The apprenticeship program, where students – upon completing the courses – would get paid to build real apps or websites for clients, working closely with experienced coders.
Eventually, it became clear, though, that the apprenticeship didn’t exist, students and former Justice Reskill staffers told The Post. The aspiring coders started to lose faith and began looking for other opportunities when they heard Clark wasn’t always paying his employees.
When one student mentioned that he needed a computer, Dekraai offered to buy the $ 700 machine using a discount – with the promise from Clark that Justice Reskill would pay him back.
“He just ghosted me,” Dekraai said. “Every time I did talk to him, he lectured me on financial planning.”
Clark never paid, Dekraai said.
“Your word is everything”
The students were furious when Clark, days before the final exam, laid off the instructor, who told The Post he had been working without pay for months. A few of them placed bets on whether Clark would show up for the final.
“It was a total rug-pull,” said another former student, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve his job prospects because of his criminal record.
A couple of students received certificates from Clark stating they completed the program, more than a month late and only after badgering him repeatedly over Slack. Others don’t even care to ask for it.
“That certificate is worth about as much as a roll of toilet paper,” the second former student said.
Dekraai and others said they feel some ambivalence over the Justice Reskill experience. Clark let them down, but other staffers with the program worked tirelessly on their behalf, they said. These teachers and other employees continued to show up even when they weren’t seeing a paycheck. Their former instructor has stayed in touch, offering guidance as they look for new opportunities.
But those who went through the program spoke of the trust issues that come along with being incarcerated or involved in the criminal justice system. You can never really let your guard down. This experience, multiple students said, only reinforces that belief.
“I come from a culture where your word is everything,” said Dekraai, who spent five years in prison on drug charges. “If I believe you, you have to do what you say you’re going to do. What’s the point of even living if you can’t live by your word? ”