Nevada sheriff calls for change after youth camp's 4th riot in 4 months leads to brief escapes

A riot at a juvenile rehabilitation center in rural western Nevada has put a neighboring town "at its wits' end" following the latest in a series of violent uprisings, the local sheriff says, even as school officials insist everything is back to normal.

Two buildings at the youth camp on the edge of Yerington were set on fire, four staff members were hurt and 10 teenagers briefly escaped the facility that lacks a fence to keep in its troubled population. The majority of the boys are sent to Rite of Passage Silver State Academy on court orders as an alternative to prison.

Lyon County Sheriff Al McNeil said he's increasingly concerned about the safety of the community and is pressing school officials to make changes so it doesn't happen again.

"I've had public safety concerns over the years because there is no fencing to keep them on the property," McNeil told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "They break into my citizens' homes and steal keys and steal cars. My community is at its wits' end right now.

"This is rural Nevada, and every home has a gun. My biggest concern is one of these kids will go into a house at 2 a.m., and there will be a farmer or a rancher there, and we'll have a fatal shooting," he said.

No one was seriously injured in the Saturday riot, but one staff member had to be treated at a hospital, McNeil said.

The state fire marshal is investigating the arsons, and Yerington Tribal Police are looking into the cause of the riot, the fourth in as many months at the school for at-risk teens, McNeil said. The camp is on tribal land about 8 miles north of Yerington and 70 miles southeast of Reno.

The sheriff said several youths "made a bunch of improvised weapons," but he had no further details about the incident or nature of the minor injuries. "You break a table leg, and then you have a club," McNeil said.

Six of the escapees were captured shortly after the riot that broke out about 8 p.m. Saturday, and the other four were caught the next morning, he said. A building housing the laundry and another with a maintenance shop suffered an undetermined amount of fire damage.

The academy is a nonprofit, licensed and accredited charter school operated by the Rite of Passage Adolescent Treatment Centers and Schools, which is based in Minden, Nevada, and sponsored by California's El Dorado County Office of Education.

Rick Wright, corporate human resources director for Rite of Passage, said he couldn't comment on what sparked the riot or the status of the teens who were involved because of confidentiality requirements regarding juveniles.

"We had an unpredictable situation," Wright said Tuesday. "We are studying the events of what happened so we can prevent them in the future."

The school increased staffing as a preventative measure, but "everything was back to normal by Sunday," he said.

The school is required to have one staff member on site for every eight teens, "and we were well in excess of that — approximately 3-to-1," Wright said. He estimated that there were about 25 youths at the school at the time.

Officials for the El Dorado County Office of Education in Placerville, California, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

John Dibble, chairman of the school's advisory board, said officials are considering changes to improve safety at the facility that opened in 1987.

"I'm devastated that once again we were a threat to the community, and that's not something we enjoy being," he told KOLO-TV in Reno.

The school's website said it provides counseling, educational, vocational and athletic programs for boys ages 14 to 17 "with a troubled past."

"We are disappointed with the actions of a few of our students, and those responsible will be held accountable," the school said in a statement on its website. "We are still positive that our program benefits disadvantaged youth and will be evaluating future admissions."

Most of the youths are sent there from neighboring California, McNeil said.