Camp Kilpatrick’s sports program might be at endgame

Camp Kilpatrick teammates support each other at practice. The sports program at the juvenile detention center in the Malibu Hills -- the subject of the 2006 movie "Gridiron Gang" -- may not return after the aging facility is leveled and rebuilt.
(Los Angeles Times)

The Mustangs will take to the field for the final time this fall. The sports program at the Kilpatrick juvenile detention center is being disbanded — “suspended,” officials call it — so the 50-year-old facility in the Malibu Hills can be leveled and rebuilt.

The remake has been in the works for years; it’s one of the oldest, most decrepit of the county’s 14 rural juvenile camps, with a gym yellow-tagged since the Northridge earthquake and a pitted, patchy playing field.

But it is also the only camp with a sports program, one that made a national name for itself six years ago in the movie “Gridiron Gang.” Kilpatrick’s teams play in a regular high school league against kids from suburban private and religious schools.

The new Kilpatrick facility will be less like prison and more therapeutic, its institutional dorms and classrooms replaced with intimate cottages and counseling centers.


The “state-of-the-art rehabilitative compound,” as county officials call it, will cost $41 million and reopen in three years.

Its wards will be spread among the county’s 13 other camps. Probation officials say they hope to restore the sports program when the new Kilpatrick opens.

But they said something similar a few years ago when they closed two other camps that offered firefighting programs. Those are still shut down.

Odds are Kilpatrick’s teams are done. Sports aren’t central to the vision of the probation department’s federal overseers.

“This is a heartbreaker to us,” probation officer Kurt Keller told me this week. I wrote a column about the sports program two years ago when he was its basketball coach.

His team made the state playoffs, then lost its chance at a championship because of a paperwork glitch. But it won its league’s Sportsmanship Award because of how well the players conducted themselves game after game in the gym.

“A lot of us came here for the chance to coach,” Keller said. “It’s a way to get close, to get to know the kids, to have an impact that lasts when their time is done.

“Once this program is gone? It won’t come back. They never do.”


It’s not a question of money, said Cal Remington, deputy chief of the Los Angeles County probation program. “That really wasn’t part of the decision.” The sports program doesn’t cost much; just equipment expenses and small stipends for coaches.

But because of its history of failing kids, the county’s juvenile corrections system is being monitored by theU.S. Department of Justice. That means old-school character building through sports is out, and “evidence-based integrated treatment programs” are in.

A system that has relied for decades on manhandling and medicating its charges is now required to offer only programs — mental health counseling, group therapy sessions, targeted education — that formal studies say reduce recidivism.

The sports program is simply collateral damage in a long-overdue campaign to make the troubled probation camps more responsive to delinquent teenagers’ needs.

“If we can get them to think in a more positive logical manner, in the long run they’ll make better decisions and won’t get themselves in trouble again,” Remington said.

But can’t a sports program teach those lessons, too? A bad attitude can get a player benched; a bad choice can get him dropped from the team.

Sports has plenty to offer wayward kids. Even probation honchos agree. “We certainly see the value in discipline, in learning to be a team member,” Remington said. “But no one has studied the sports program” to quantify its impact on delinquent kids.

So maybe it’s time they did — before they turn their camps into sports-free zones on the misguided notion that athletics don’t count and only “therapeutic” things make a difference.

It’s common sense that teenage boys need an outlet for their energy; a place to shine, a mandate to cooperate, a chance to see their teammates as comrades, not gang rivals.

The lessons camp therapists aim to teach — identifying strengths and weaknesses, setting and reaching goals, learning to say no to a short-term indulgence for the better long-term reward — are lessons teams learn through hours of practice, in the gym or on the field.

The probation department has made a mess of its calling over the years; mired in scandals and allegations of abuse, accused of doing nothing but warehousing kids.

This turn toward treatment is admirable, but the one-size-fits-all approach isn’t.

It’s the same sort of single-minded focus that’s hamstrung L.A. Unified schools, where the preoccupation with high-stakes testing has indeed improved academic performance. But in the process, it’s squeezed out other choices — art, music, vocational programs — that have been a lifeline for struggling kids.

The boys assigned to county camps are testing-the-water criminals. Some boys need therapy, some need mentors, some need punishment and some might just need time to grow up. All of them deserve a chance to practice what they’re learning.

“When our kids compete, they see real world experiences,” said probation supervisor Glenn Williams. Consider a recent soccer game in which “the refs were clearly biased,” he said. Every call went against his team.

“Our kids sucked it up, took it like men,” he said. “It was a life lesson: People are going to judge you. Just do your best, put one foot in front of the other and keep on going forward.”

That’s something you can apply to an algebra class or talk about in a therapy session. But its power grows when it’s practiced in public.

The sports programs at probation camps ought to be expanded, not scrapped. And not just because they create heroes — former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson is one. Or because they’ve steered a handful of athletes into college.

“It’s tough to measure the good things,” said Keller, the basketball coach. “They talk about recidivism and all that. But just to be out there, working with one another, representing themselves and our program in a positive way.... That counts for a lot to us.”