Kilpatrick Imperiled Sports Program Should be Saved, Says Chief Powers & LA County Supes Agree—& the Research Agrees TooMarch 19th, 2014 by Celeste Fremon
For nearly two years, the fate of LA County Probation’s much-lauded Kilpatrick sports program for incarcerated kids looked very grim.
The last few months, in particular, have been filled with dire rumors about about the program’s imminent demise.
On Tuesday, however, the athletic program’s fortunes suddenly reversed when Probation Chief Jerry Powers told the LA County Board of Supervisors that the program will not be shut down after all. There are some problems to be solved, Powers said, but he sounded definitive on the main question.
“The bottom line,’ he said, “We will continue the sports program.”
With that, the program’s coaches, who were sitting in nervous clusters at the back of the supervisors’ hearing room, breathed a tentative sigh of relief.
The sports program in question, which became the basis for the 2006 film, The Gridiron Gang, began in 1986, with a single 12- player basketball team. Now it fields teams in football, basketball, baseball, soccer and track and is the only program in the state of California in which incarcerated kids play against teams from public and private schools in the California Interscholastic Federation or CIF.
The program is housed at Camp Vernon Kilpatrick, a dilapidated all boys facility built in 1962 in the hills above Malibu, which is slated for tear down this month.
Camp Kilpatrick is being bulldozed in order to replace its prison-esque barracks with smaller, homier cabins, family-style dining areas and other rehabilitation-friendly architecture. The inner workings of the place will be rebooted as well. The new Kilpatrick will emphasize mental and emotional health, the acquisition of skills, healing from childhood trauma, relationship-building, and the like. Gone will be the ineffective and damaging command and control methods that have too long held sway in LA’s juvenile facilities.
Kilpatrick’s transformation (which we are following closely) is a vitally important project that has the possibility of fundamentally changing the way Los Angeles treats its lawbreaking kids.
But, up until Tuesday, it looked like the camp’s sports program—which, for many years had been one of the rare bright lights in LA County’s huge and troubled juvenile justice system—might go from source-of-pride to road kill—mainly because nobody seemed to know quite what else to do with it.
Advocates of the program weren’t willing to give up so easily. A mother whose kids attended Viewpoint private school, and whose son had played against the Kilpatrick kids, started a petition to save the camp. It quickly amassed more than 1000 signatures, with the number still rising.
Kilpatrick’s coaches began talking to anybody who would listen. The kids couldn’t lose this program, they said. They just couldn’t.
Back in the summer of 2012 when the matter first came to the attention of the supervisors, one of the strikes against the athletics program despite its popularity, was the claim that it wasn’t “evidence based”—meaning that there was no study that proved positively that kids in a carcel setting would measurably benefit from playing team sports.
Nevermind that the Kilpatrick coaches could trot out mounds of anecdotal evidence of how this or that kid’s life was changed or saved, or how the coaches helped various players get into college. Moreover, there was plenty of related research, like this 2012 study done at the University of Michigan, that showed “when high schools have strong interscholastic sports participation rates, they report lower levels of crime or violence and fewer suspensions.”
With the idea of possibly remedying the “evidence-based” issue, the board ordered up a year-long study of its own to find out whether the sports program did, in fact, help kids.
After nearly two years, the study will become public toward the end of next week, Powers said. In the meantime, he gave the highlights:
When compared to the 121 probation kids who were used as a control group, when it came to discipline, the sports kids were better behaved than the control kids, he said. They performed equally well educationally and, in many cases, improved their school attendance once they got out of camp. The sports kids were more likely than the control kids to earn early release from camp.
The area that Powers said needed to be “tweaked,” had to do with this: For the first six months after they were released from camp, the control group kids and the sports kids did equally well. However, during the second six months after release, 15 percent more of the sports group reoffended, than the non sport kids.
“So we’ve got to work to find out why that recidivism rate changes after six months,” Powers said.
(The actual details of all these numbers will be found in the study, when it is released.)
The bump in the statistical road didn’t seem to dampen Powers’ newly ignited enthusiasm for rescuing the program.
“When we improve those long term outcomes, why just have [the sports program] with 40 kids, why not spread this to other camps. Why not have a program for the girls?”
Zev Yaroslavsky agreed. “If it’s good for 40 it’s probably good for 400.”
I’ll tell you one thing,” Powers said, “the kids who go through the program rave about their coaches. They rave about the connections they’re able to make with those coaches. They see them as mentors. I would love to see the staff in all my facilities related to these kids, bond with the kids in that way….”
And so it was that Supervisor Don Knabe, long a Kilpatrick sports supporter, put forth a motion to “instruct” Powers to “report back in one week as to the feasibility of retaining the sports program as is at Camp Miller”—which P.S. is right next door to Kilpatrick—”or another location” until such time as a study is completed.