Busting bad kids

A rural county snags the Lyon’s share of juvenile crime

There’s nothing much to do—except get busted for being kids—in Fernley, say rural youths like (clockwise from top) Matt Levan, Aurora Harris, Tim Reed and Mario Rosales.

There’s nothing much to do—except get busted for being kids—in Fernley, say rural youths like (clockwise from top) Matt Levan, Aurora Harris, Tim Reed and Mario Rosales.

Photo By Brad Summerhill

So you city kids think the cops are hassling you too much? Try living in Lyon County, where, according to the 1999-2000 Annual Report of the Nevada Judiciary, juvenile offenders are more than five times as likely to have run-ins with police and district courts as compared to Washoe County.

Talk about rural justice.

“All the cops are jerks in this damn town,” says 14-year-old Aurora Harris, as she sits with friends in Fernley Desert Park on a late summer afternoon. She complains of being groped by one deputy while he searched her.

The judiciary report comes as no surprise to 16-year-olds Mario Rosales and Matt Levan. More than half the kids in Fernley are on probation, Levan claims. He says he isn’t exaggerating.

Tim Reed, 20, says that on any given Tuesday or Wednesday at the police station, you’ll see a lobby packed with kids on probation for all sorts of offenses, mostly minor.

“It’s a small town,” Reed says. “There’s, like, one cop for every other resident.”

Their discussion forms a familiar picture of the contentious relationship between rural cops and teens. Of the six school-age kids hanging out at the park in Fernley, two were on probation and two had recently gotten off probation.

While the kids believe the numbers, others are taken aback by the judiciary report.

“I find that very surprising,” says Lyon County School District Superintendent Matt Lommori. “Our kids are no different from kids anywhere.”

Lyon County, which encompasses the towns of Fernley, Silver Springs, Dayton and Yerington, has experienced some gang activity in the past few years, Lommori says, theorizing one possible explanation for the odd statistics.

Put it this way: Lyon County has about 10 percent the population of Washoe County but more than half the number of juvenile arrests. In fiscal year 1999-2000, Lyon district courts reported 1,577 cases in juvenile court, while Washoe reported an incomplete 1,425 cases for half the year. If Washoe’s numbers are doubled to 2,850 to account for the full year, the proportion still remains vastly out of whack.

Lyon County associate school superintendent Russ Coletta says the district meets with juvenile probation officers annually in a cooperative effort. He describes the general policy of Lyon County as one of early intervention. He believes that multiple interventions with repeat juvenile offenders could explain the caseloads.

The judiciary report counts felonies, gross misdemeanors and routine misdemeanors such as traffic and curfew violations. It is possible that radar-happy cops are exceeding quotas by tracking down teenage hot-rodders. Or it’s possible that kids out in Lyon do more partying than their tamer colleagues in the city. Or it’s possible that the spread of illegal methamphetamines has hit Nevada’s rural counties to an unprecedented extent.

There are benign explanations for the statistics.

At least one concerned parent, however, believes there’s a more insidious explanation.

“It’s not right what they’re doing with our kids,” says Brent Pack, whose teen daughter Chanel, a good student, had a run-in with the law last year. “The problem with this so-called intervention is that it can be brought back later as a sentencing enhancement. What concerns me is that every time there’s a fight or normal kid stuff, these kids and their parents are being marched into juvenile court and put on probation for an indefinite period of time.

“The juvenile courts are abusing probation. As a parent, I’m very concerned. When it comes to juvenile law out here, it’s a rubber-stamp court.”

“It’s not unusual for parents to be disgruntled,” says Lyon County District Court Judge Archie Blake, adding that any juvenile case in Lyon County involving drugs automatically goes to district court. Judge Blake wonders if the judiciary report statistics could possibly represent a procedural issue (if, for example, Lyon County were more meticulous in its reporting than another county), but he also says that the county is small enough to take a personalized approach to juvenile crime.

“Juvenile courts and juvenile probation work very closely with the schools,” he says, noting that different counties may uphold different standards for juvenile probation and sentencing. “We take a real interest in a child’s behavior.”

For Pack, the issue manifests itself in what looks like a $1.25 million dollar jail for kids in Silver Springs. The Western Nevada Regional Youth Center is a multi-county juvenile treatment facility with 26 beds, built and operated using funds from Lyon, Churchill, Storey, Douglas and Carson counties. Juvenile probation officer Chuck Steele explains that the center fills a need in these rural counties for a residential treatment facility to help kids with mental health and drug abuse problems. Despite the high fences and barbwire, he states clearly, “This is not a jail.”

District courts in the various counties have the option of assigning juvenile offenders to the staff-secure facility, explains Steele. When offered Pack’s criticism that the youth facility is a microcosm of America’s prison industry—build cells, and they will come—Steele replies, “I would take exception to that theory in regard to the Western Nevada Regional Youth Center.”

The facility opened in August 2000, after the period covered in the judiciary report.

So how to explain the Lyon’s share of juvenile crime?

Lyon County Sheriff Sid Smith offers a simple answer. Juveniles in rural counties are watched more closely than elsewhere.

“The juveniles here aren’t more predisposed to committing offenses, but they’re under more scrutiny,” he says. Having lived his whole life in rural Nevada counties, Smith doesn’t find the statistics cited in the latest judiciary report to be surprising.

“We don’t go out and pick on kids,” he says. Smith has given clear direction to staff not to stereotype the rural hip-hoppers and punksters roaming the streets of Fernley, Yerington and elsewhere.

“Naturally, we don’t have the kind of gang problems as in an urban area,” he says.

He thinks that most of the juvenile offenses recorded in Lyon County are misdemeanor violations such as underage drinking, driving under the influence and curfew violations. Lyon County curfew requires teens to be indoors by 10 p.m. weekdays and before midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, summer or winter.

Smith believes the statistics are nothing new. He acknowledges that his explanation of the statistics dredges up old stereotypes of cops with too much time on their hands, but he also says that people want officers to protect peaceable small town values. Citizens want this kind of enforcement, he says.

Fernley High School student Chanel Pack, 15, daughter of Brent Pack, considers herself a good student but found herself in trouble in 1999. That’s how her offense ended up being included in the judiciary’s report. Two girls kept trying to taunt her into fighting, and then one day, she says, she had to defend herself. School officials assigned her to one day in APEP, the Alternative Placement Education Program, a rigorous disciplinary program.

“Just about everybody I know has been in APEP for more than a day,” she says.

Chanel’s parents protested the punishment, requesting traditional suspension. Chanel ended up being charged with truancy. She had to go to court with her mom, and it took some legal wrangling before the juvenile court master decided that a girl fight didn’t necessitate the heavy hand of the law.

For the Pack family, the situation is emblematic of how Lyon County treats good kids who might screw up once in a while. For him, the extreme discipline shown by the school district is a reflection of the unforgiving treatment offered to youths by courts and cops.

Harris and all of her friends hanging out in Fernley Desert Park say they have spent days and even weeks in APEP, which consists of all-day detention. At sites in Yerington, Fernley or Dayton, students sit from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. doing homework at a desk, supervised by an adult. Students are sent to APEP for fighting, mouthing off or other behavior deemed out of line by the middle and high school administrations. If you’re late to APEP, you get another day of APEP.

The program is an alternative to out-of-school suspension, a disciplinary action viewed by generations of American kids as a righteous vacation from the classroom. In Lyon County, this is no longer the case. Students with disciplinary problems end up glued to a desk for weeks on end. It’s just like the movie The Breakfast Club, except without witty dialogue, dancing and pot smoking.

What finally develops in the matter of Lyon County kids, cops and courts is an old-fashioned sociological snapshot of a rural county dealing with urbanization. The population growth of Lyon County in the past several years, while not staggering, is significant. In Washoe County, 4.4 percent of the population were high schoolers in 1999, while in Lyon County, 5.4 percent of residents were attending high school.

Perhaps that extra 1 percent of rowdy teens—along with the psychic pressures of construction, the spread of addictive drugs, media hype about gang violence and fears about the erosion of small-town values—ultimately accounts for the packed dockets of Lyon County.