A sports program that brought national acclaim to a Los Angeles County probation camp is headed for extinction — unless it can prove that it helps youthful offenders stay trouble-free.
For more than 20 years, Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu has been the only juvenile correctional facility in the state to field teams that compete against public and private schools in the California Interscholastic Federation.
The camp's football team inspired the 2006 movie "Gridiron Gang" and sent several players to college. Its basketball team has come close to being a regional champion. Its soccer program produced this year's Delphic League MVP.
But Camp Kilpatrick is being torn down next month and will be rebuilt on a new model — one that stresses education, counseling and vocational training over competitive sports.
It's part of a long-overdue shift in the county juvenile justice system, from boot-camp style to a therapeutic approach to rehabilitating young people.
Still, it would be a loss to the young men incarcerated at Camp Kilpatrick if sports are a casualty of reform.
The sports program is in limbo until probation officials consider the results of a soon-to-be-completed study into whether Kilpatrick's program actually reduces recidivism.
Former football player Guadalupe Flores doesn't need a study to answer that for me.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, he was a perpetual troublemaker who was locked up at 18 for assaulting an ex-girlfriend. Kilpatrick's coaches became his father figures, he said.
"They taught me how to discipline myself, physically and mentally."
Flores, now 20, learned to work hard, to trust people, to aim for victory but tolerate disappointment. Today, he owns a truck, rents an apartment and supports his three children with a job at a billiards company.
Chief Probation Officer Jerry Powers insists the new treatment model will provide those same things, in more structured, lab-tested doses.
"I get the value of sports," said Powers, who played three sports in high school. "It's great that kids at Kilpatrick had that opportunity. But it's time to quantify whether long-term benefits extend back into the community."
In other words, does playing football for the Mustangs keep a kid from breaking into your car when he's not locked up anymore?
The staff at Kilpatrick is understandably upset. Many camp probation officers are former athletes and proud of the legacy their teams have built.
"We came here because they had a program that offered a little more hope," said Glenn Williams, a supervising deputy probation officer at the camp. "Here you can be a mentor, a coach; teach them something beyond 'Keep your hands to yourself.'"
Some are cynical about the new approach, though it's been shown in other states to reduce recidivism, which has hovered for years in Los Angeles County at more than 50%.
Instead of living in giant dormitories, the teenagers will live in cottages in groups of 10 or 12, supervised by teachers, social workers and psychologists. They'll get individualized attention for their personal problems, and someone to track their progress when they're back with their families.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky thinks that's a great idea, but doesn't understand why the reforms can't make room for sports.
There's no guarantee that sports will keep a kid on the right track. But competition teaches them to work with adversaries, he said. "And at the end of the game, you can shake hands and walk off with respect.
"If the new program doesn't include sports, well, maybe it should," he said.
It's good to see the department focusing on helping kids instead of fending off scandals or flailing around.
Powers understands the attachment to the program. "If I was a coach, I'd be fighting like hell to save the sports program too," he said. "It's a fun way to interact with kids.... But my job is to get probation officers to look beyond that and see the bigger picture."
But some of that "bigger picture" unfolds beyond the fenced compound at Camp Kilpatrick, when the boys are bused to play at schools in Chatsworth, Agoura Hills, Encino, Malibu.
Kilpatrick's league includes private and religious schools, and many of the students and parents there are rallying to save the camp's teams. Despite their criminal credentials, the Kilpatrick Mustangs have become known as fair, tough and well-mannered competitors.
When news spread that the camp teams were being disbanded, Viewpoint High senior Jack Leonard launched a protest petition on change.org. More than 750 people have signed it, most praising Kilpatrick's sportsmanship.
Playing Kilpatrick has been an education that goes both ways.
"I am always amazed by their commitment to play the game with class and character," wrote Tim McAloon of Agoura Hills.
Suburban kids who used to joke, rather nervously, about playing the "juvie kids" have learned that their opponents are more than the sum of their crimes.
"I'm from a very white elitist part of town, and they're from the other side of the tracks," said Jesse Douglas, mother of Jack. "But we're all going to run into each other somewhere someday, whether it's on Venice Beach or Ventura Boulevard. If we're stuck now on stereotypes and judgments, we'll never get past that."
Douglas helped organize a pizza party at Viewpoint after one game; boys who'd been jawing at each other on the pitch wound up carrying on like best friends.
"People started mingling together, and everything just kind of changed," Jack said.
After their final game against Viewpoint — which may be the last game that Kilpatrick will ever play — each Viewpoint player presented a rival with a copy of "Tattoos on the Heart," a book by Father Gregory Boyle that is about the power of compassion.
After awkward hugs, the Kilpatrick players headed back to their bus, leaving with a sense that they'd been judged by something other than the worst parts of their young lives.