Child meets violent death in desert boot camp [Original title: "Hard Work For Youths At Camp"]
By Rick DelVecchio and Ken Hoover, Chronicle Staff Writers, San Francisco Chronicle, February 18, 1992

Schurz, Nev. California problem kids get few luxuries in desert

Two dozen of California's toughest juvenile offenders are on their backs in the gray desert sand, grunting their way through leg lifts.

A couple of adult supervisors get down in the sand with the kids in a gesture of camaraderie. The supervisors keep their walkie-talkies just a short grab away, ready to call for help should things turn ugly.

This is the Rite of Passage camp, where things do turn ugly now and then. It is a place on the fringes in more ways than one--a tiny cluster of shack-like buildings amid sagebrush, dry lakebeds and salt flats, where l3- to l8-year-old boys are sent by California probation departments for 90 days of highly regimented athletic training and schooling.

It is billed as a last chance before incarceration for chronic runaways and rebels.

Rite of Passage became the focus of an investigation by Nevada law enforcement when Paul Choy, a l5-year-old San Francisco boy, was critically injured there February 4. Members of the staff said that he became violent and that he stopped breathing even though they followed carefully drawn rules on retraining residents.

Choy remains on life support in a Reno hospital. A family friend says he has been declared brain dead.

His case has rekindled controversy over the benefits of so-called wilderness programs for troubled teenagers and about probation departments that send youngsters to other states, outside the range of state licensing.

Five to seven times per week, a resident becomes so violent he must be physically restrained.

The camp houses ll0 residents. Their well-being is entrusted to the 33 "coaches" who work seven-day shifts and bunk with the kids in plywood-floored Quonset huts.

There are no weapons. Stern discipline, even a raised voice, is discouraged, say camp supervisors. And the rules are clear: If a resident acts threateningly, the coach must step back and give the youth every chance to find a face-saving way out.

"The last thing we want to see is a student losing control." said shift supervisor John Motley. "Every time we see them make a mistake, we given them the right choice to make."

Motley said the students are told to "stop, think, act, reflect on your actions."

It does not always work so neatly. Five to seven times per week, a resident becomes so violent he must be physically restrained, Motley said.

Strict rules govern how this is done. One day last week, coaches practiced the camp's restraint technique. It looks easy. One man claps the other under the arms and gently drops him on his back.

Motley said he is satisfied no one at the camp did anything wrong. To the contrary, he said coaches may have saved Choy's life by giving the cardiopulmonary resuscitation for a half-hour before he was evacuated to a hospital by helicopter.

Motley refused to allow students to be interviewed, saying Nevada authorities insist that no students can talk to the press until the investigation is cleared up.

During a camp tour, visitors were shown students moving in parade formation and eating tortillas with beans in the cafeteria.

Motley said all incidents in which coaches have physical contact with students are documented and are routinely reviewed by the state authorities and the Walker river Paiute Tribe, on whose land the camp is located.

Rite of Passage, a for-profit company, pays the tribe $7,000 a month, said tribal chairman Anita Collins. Because the land belongs to the Paiutes, the state has no licensing authority, although is does investigate reports of neglect or abuse. Collins said a full-time inspector keeps an eye on the camp. In the past, she said, the tribal council has demanded that employees with criminal background be fired.

Motley produced a log showing that about 300 outsiders, mostly from regulatory agencies, visited the camp in the past year.

He said it has never been cited for serious violations of either the state's or the tribe's rules.

In the past year-and-a-half, 50 incident reports have been reviewed by the tribe, the state and the Mineral County Sheriff;s Department, he said. In February l99l, the tribe complained that a student had been restrained for too long.[Emphasis added] The camp answered that the incident involved three separate instances of restraint and that each instance was brief.

The tribe instructed the camp to make sure coaches were recertified on passive restraint techniques every month.

On Sunday, Judi Mar, director of San Francisco's Asian Youth Center, said she received a call from Paul Choy on January 28. He complained that he as depressed at the camp.

According to Mar, Choy said he had been forced to sit on a wooden platform in the cold for five hours. Choy said it was punishment for failing to finish a five-mile run and other parts of the camp's demanding physical regime. [Emphasis added]

Mar, who has known Choy for about two years, said she opposed sending the 5-foot-4 youth to the Nevada camp. She said he did not have the athletic ability for the camp, and it was too far away for his mother to visit. Also, she was concerned that an Asian youth from San Francisco would feel isolated at the rural desert camp.

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