Despite attack, youth camp staffer remains dedicated to facility’s promise

Spring Mountain Youth Camp stands near Angels Peak like an outpost on the edge of a devastating frontier.

There are no fences there. No jail cells. No barbed wire or guard towers. All of that begins about 25 miles to the north at the Southern Desert Correctional Center and High Desert State Prison near Indian Springs.

At Spring Mountain, residents aren’t called inmates. They’re clients. They live in dormitories, attend school, participate in sports, develop life skills, collect points for good behavior, and receive medical treatment and psychological counseling. For many of the youth camp’s 100 clients, the experience represents the last best chance they’ll ever have to turn around their troubled lives and avoid descending into a dark valley that teems with violence, drug addiction, mental illness and hard-core penitentiaries. For all its flaws, the camp personifies nothing so much as an outpost of hope.

It’s something Spring Mountain’s veteran juvenile probation officers know well. At the camp, they wear many hats. They are one part security officer, one part counselor, another part coach.

Juvenile probation officer Aimee Williams knows the camp well. The clients call her Miss A.

Williams has been a fixture for 17 years. Like the rest of her fellow officers, Williams has seen the camp, perched at 8,470 feet in the Toiyabe National Forest area of Mount Charleston, work wonders for many.

Many, but not all.

On Monday, Dec. 17, at 8:50 p.m., one of those clients sneaked up on Williams while she updated her casework on the computer and pummeled her with a bar of soap inside a sock. Swung like a sap, it landed with devastating force, opening a gash on her head and leaving welts and bruises.

Williams was struck numerous times before her attacker ran from the dorm in an apparent attempt to escape into the December night. His problem, of course, was that he was in his underwear and the outside temperature that time of year hovers in the mid-20s. He wasn’t difficult to capture.

Although some Clark County officials contend otherwise, the caliber of client at the youth camp has changed over the years. Today’s young people are more likely to have drug problems or to have committed a sex crime. There are more gang members, more mentally troubled clients than in years past, more kids from homes headed by grandparents and older siblings.

But the camp’s mission hasn’t changed.

“Generally speaking, it is rare for youth to assault staff,” Department of Juvenile Justice Services Director Cherie Townsend says. “Our Spring Mountain Youth Camp facility is extremely well run and well structured.”

A veteran of more than 30 years in the juvenile justice system, Townsend says she knows of no change “in any of the trends” that would lead her department to conclude that youth offenders in custody are more violent than in years past. She notes the camp maintains a consistent client-to-officer ratio despite the facility’s expansion from 80 to 100 beds. (It houses some 230 juveniles annually.)

I wonder whether some of the camp’s probation officers would agree, but Townsend reminds skeptics of the camp’s greater purpose. She also speaks with pride about its 85 percent success rate in steering troubled boys ages 12 to 18 away from the abyss of the criminal life.

“It’s a program that I stress is not intended to be punishment so much as a time to hold them accountable for their behavior, but provide them an opportunity to change their behavior in the future,” Townsend says. “It’s an opportunity for success, and an 85 percent success rate would indicate that.”

It’s tempting to classify all troubled young men into one large stereotype, but a great many are salvageable. And they’re certainly not all the same.

For an example, look no further than the night of Dec. 17.

Moments after the vicious, unprovoked attack, other clients in the dorm responded to the assault by rushing to Williams’ side.

With her head injury and bruises mostly healed, the juvenile probation officer known as Miss A is scheduled to return to duty soon.

You can’t buy that kind of dedication.

At Spring Mountain Youth Camp, they’re saving a troubled generation one young man at a time.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.

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