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A WAY OUT : Troubled, Delinquent Kids Finda a Second Chance on Courts of Last Resort at Detention Centers Like Rancho San Antonio

Times Staff Writer

Before Theo became the most tenacious defensive player on an undefeated basketball team, he was stealing televisions, not passes. By the time he was in his early teens, he had a police record for burglarizing homes in residential neighborhoods. At 16, after being caught once again, he was sent to Juvenile Hall in Sylmar. It seemed as if he was just another bad kid on a one-way trip to nowhere.

But on the road to oblivion, Theo was lucky enough to make a stop at Rancho San Antonio, an open-setting correctional facility in Chatsworth that transforms a lot of bad boys into good boys.

Placed there by the courts nine months ago, Theo turned his life around. You could say he found himself on the basketball court.

“I accomplished something for the first time in my life,” said Theo, who had never even played organized sports before. “I proved to myself and other people that I could be successful. Those bad days are behind me. Basketball helped me grow a lot in the last few months.”

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Theo (the real names of the youths in this article are being withheld) is not the first teen-ager to learn important lessons about life from sports at Rancho San Antonio, which calls itself “the Boys Town of the West.”

For most of its 52 years, the facility has recognized the value of sports in the development of youth. But unlike public schools, which often sacrifice character-building to championship-winning, Rancho seems genuinely to regard participation as more important than the outcome of the game.

“Sports is a major part of our rehabilitation process,” said Randy McTague, program director at the facility. “A lot of kids come here with low self-esteem and little self-respect. Through physical programs like basketball, they get a chance to feel good about themselves and can increase their self-image and self-confidence.

“Life’s value systems are transferred through sports. A kid who plays on a team learns teamwork. He learns to take direction. All of a sudden a kid who in another situation would tell an authority figure to get lost is doing whatever the coach tells him to do. On the court, leaders emerge, kids have to learn the give and take of competition. Sports is so powerful that way.”

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Rancho was founded in 1933 and the facility’s approach to rehabilitation has changed over the years. When Rancho moved to its current location in 1938, orange groves and horse ranches had not yet been overrun by suburbia, and authorities shipped bad city boys to the country in the hope that hard work in a Spartan environment would transform them into model citizens.

Administered by the Brothers of Holy Cross and owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Rancho today seems more like a country club than the work farm it once was. The one-story Spanish-style buildings sit amid student-tended tropical vegetation on 20 acres in an industrial area at the corner of DeSoto Avenue and Plummer Street. There are no guard dogs, barbed wire or fences to keep the 118 boys from running away.

“If a boy is here, it’s usually because he has several prior arrests.” said McTague, one of 45 staff members, “But the kids are manageable and can handle an open setting.

“You’ve got to realize that a boy has gone through a lot before getting here. He’s been in Juvenile Hall, which is not a pleasant experience, and the court has ordered him to go to a placement facility like ours. If he skips and gets caught, he knows he might get sent back to Juvenile Hall, or something worse, like a secured Step 3 probation camp.”

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In their nine-month stay at Rancho, the boys lead a regimented and structured life. They live in 10-bed dorms, attend classes next door at Aggeler High, a Los Angeles Unified School District Opportunity School, take part in daily one-hour group therapy sessions, and play sports. Lots of sports.

Aside from being able to use a 25-yard indoor pool and a recreation room with six pool tables, the boys are required to participate in afternoon intramural sports such as volleyball, which, McTague said, “was considered a sissy sport until the boys played it. Then they really got into the camaraderie.”

One of the most popular and successful athletic endeavors, McTague said, is the Rancho outdoor challenge, called ROC, an Outward Bound-style obstacle course that forces a boy to use his resourcefulness, cunning and courage.

“The kids we get are searching for, ‘Who am I,’ and part of that is found through participation in physical activity,” McTague said. “After taking part in a sport, the boy feels better about himself and is ready to work on his problems. He thinks, ‘Maybe I better knock off drugs. Maybe I better get my relationship with my family back together. I am worth it.’ ”

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When their sons first come to Rancho, some parents think they’re having too much fun. After all, they say, it isn’t supposed to be a summer camp. But Rancho’s methods, however loose they appear, reach a lot of the boys, said Brother Robert McCarthy, director of social services. In a given five-year period, he estimates, 60% of the boys who complete the program stay out of trouble with the law.

To those parents who initially think their kids are in a country club, Brother Robert said, “I tell them, ‘Be patient, we’ll put demands on your son that will be painful and hard. We are strict here.’ Our program looks recreational but is actually therapeutic. A kid with emotional problems needs a comfortable setting or he’ll lose focus.”

Brother Robert, or “Bro” as the boys call him, pointed out that the rules at Rancho are what older generations used to regard as wholesome.

Beds have to be made every day. Good personal hygiene is stressed. TV watching is limited. Raunchy, devil-related heavy metal music is not allowed. Neither are drugs, walking on the grass and putting your feet on the furniture. Violations are likely to cost a kid his weekend pass home.

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“Our rules are not that much different than you’d find in most homes,” Brother Robert said, “but we try to consistently enforce them, and that’s where a lot of parents go awry.”

Brother Robert, who has a master’s degree in psychology, calls participation in sports, “grist for the mill.” When a boy feels anger or elation during a game, he can get to the source of it during group therapy either the same day or soon afterward.

“If he’s angry because he lost,” Brother Robert said, “he’ll learn how to deal with his anger and put losing in perspective. He’ll be asked to relate it to other things. ‘What is losing to you? What other things have you lost in your life?’ ”

Although physical education is a requirement at most schools, Rancho is unusual in that its boys have little or no background in organized sports.

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In public school, they were likely to be the kids, McTague said, “who were smoking in the boys room” during gym. At Rancho, McTague said, they play and they like it.

An even more remarkable change occurs in the boys who take part in varsity sports at Rancho. The Rancho Mustangs play basketball, flag football and softball against similar correctional facilities in the six-team Southern California Boys Athletic League.

The majority of the players, McTague said, “had never had a uniform on--they weren’t the type of kids called out by the coach at their local high school to try out for the team.” Brother Robert calls them “the cartoon watchers of the world.”

If Rancho basketball Coach John Martin used the same criteria as his public school counterparts in choosing his players, he probably wouldn’t be able to field a team. Rancho’s basketball team, which enjoyed a 12-0 season and won the league championship this season, used a lot of players McTague called “marginally athletic.”

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All Martin required was a desire to play. And the player could even tell the coach what position he wanted.

“A high school coach looks at the game from a winning perspective,” said Martin, who has 15 years of coaching experience. “While I don’t want our kids thinking they can lose all the time and be accepted by society, I also want them to know that winning isn’t everything, and they have to learn how to be a winner.”

Theo’s progress is a classic example of the way Martin’s philosophy works. Theo certainly wouldn’t have gone out for his basketball team in high school, nor would he have been encouraged to do so.

By his own admission, “I stink on offense.” He was also a loner who got into fights, not the qualities a coach looks for in a team sport.

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But Martin saw something in him.

“Here was a kid who was getting floor burns diving all over the place for loose balls,” Martin said. “There’s no way a kid like that wouldn’t play for me, although I doubt if he would have survived the first cut in a high school.”

Martin knew that defense was Theo’s game. “It gave me a place to put my energy,” said Theo, who said he will enlist in the Marines after he gets out of Rancho.

“All my aggressiveness went to defense, but I always controlled myself on the court. The only time I got mad at people was for unsportsmanlike conduct, but I never wanted to sock anyone.”

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Theo shook his head. “I never thought an organized thing could be that good,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself and I became best buddies with the guys on the team. I had trouble with authority before. ‘Who were they to tell me what to do?’ But here I learned it was time to grow up and listen.”

Theo is typical of the caliber of athlete at Rancho. It’s seldom that a kid with outstanding athletic skills winds up at a correctional facility. The system in public schools usually acts to coddle and protect those students. They hardly ever get into trouble so bad that the coach can’t rescue them.

Darrell, 16, is an exception at Rancho. Although only 5-7, he can dunk a basketball, and this season averaged 37 points a game. McTague said Darrell “could start at guard for any team in the city.”

Martin said he has “never seen anybody with his court awareness and ball-handling skills.”

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But Darrell, according to McTague, hung around with the wrong crowd in his neighborhood and started dealing cocaine. He went out for basketball in high school, but a couple of games into the season he was arrested.

Martin said Darrell has made a lot of progress at Rancho--he’s on the honor roll at Aggeler--and even learned the necessary patience to play with less skillful teammates.

“Basketball helped me realize I can do a lot of things without being selfish,” Darrell said. “I learned you have to work together. The counselors say that if I can have that attitude off the court I can make it in life.”

Martin agreed. “If he stays away from drugs and gets the other half of his life straightened out,” Martin said, “you’re going to hear from him.”

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Like a lot of kids, Darrell idolizes professional basketball players; his favorite is Magic Johnson. But the pros these days aren’t exactly ideal role models for youngsters. Darrell, however, is wise enough to see a lesson in their misfortune. When Micheal Ray Richardson of the New Jersey Nets was banned from the league for using cocaine, Darrell could identify with the risks of drug abuse.

“I wouldn’t want that to be me,” he said. “When I got arrested, I never thought I’d play again.”

When their heroes stumble, McTague said, “It also teaches the kid that these people are not godlike, that they can have problems, too.”

Although winning isn’t emphasized at Rancho, even the most idealistic among us would admit that it’s better than the alternative. When Rancho won the league basketball championship in March by beating Pride House of Van Nuys, McTague said, “It brought the entire school together, and the natural high the kids got could compare with anything they’d ever experimented with on the streets.”

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That means drugs. One of the starters in the title game was Billy, a 16-year-old who has been in trouble almost all his life. A few months ago he violated his probation for petty theft by running away from home and taking PCP.

Playing basketball, he said, “made me realize I could do good things if I wanted to.” But it was winning the championship that lifted him to a place he hadn’t been.

“I never had that kind of feeling with drugs,” said Billy, who wants to play sports when he gets back to high school next fall.

But what if the Mustangs had lost the championship game?

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“We wouldn’t have got depressed,” Theo said. “We gave our best. At Rancho, it’s how you play that counts.”


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