Inmates at Orange County Juvenile Hall in Orange. (Photo credit: unknown)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010 | A weekend melee at the Juvenile Hall in Orange is being called a “major disturbance” by Orange County Probation Department officials.

The incident — which involved fighting among 27 minors — led to a trip to the emergency room for one probation officer who was hit by a chair and has also triggered questions about staffing levels at the facility.

The Probation Department has been affected by about 150 layoffs over the past year, mostly from closing juvenile camp facilities. While department officials say they are efficiently handling the impacts of the staff cuts, some probation officers and their union say it’s not going so smoothly.

Last month, when officials announced they were hiring a few managers, union officials began circulating a petition of no confidence and addressed the county Board of Supervisors during public session.

Department officials said that Saturday’s incident response was effective and quelled the violence almost as fast as it began. There are no staffing shortages, they argue, because levels are set by state regulations, known as Title 15.

But Orange County Employees Association spokeswoman Jennifer Muir said the incident shows that the department needs “more boots on the ground” instead of managers.

“Saturday’s incident illuminates the consequences of poor communication and the staffing shortages,” Muir said. “It’s not just our people that are at risk. It’s those kids as well.”

Probation Department spokesman Robert Rangel said the department’s staffing levels are always maintained.

“At Juvenile Hall, it’s actually exceeded,” Rangel said, noting that the staffing ratio is about one officer to eight inmates.

Muir said OCEA is in the midst of auditing staffing records as they continue to review complaints from officers that they are short staffed and feel unsafe. On Tuesday, the union met with county CEO Tom Mauk to present their assessment of the incident as well as suggestions for improvements, such as better communication with staff, Muir said.

“Communication over there and the overall culture needs to change,” Muir said. “Staff should feel safe when they go to work.”

Mauk could not be reached for comment.

Rangel said he was not aware of a petition of no confidence but disputed problems within the workforce. He said updates on the situation on Saturday night went out immediately and were followed up with face-to-face meetings Monday.

“The chief and deputy spent 14 hours at Juvenile Hall going unit to unit talking to staff individually. I think that says a lot,” Rangel said.

According to Rangel, the fight began at 8:20 p.m. on Saturday between four minors from different parts of the county. While others quickly joined in, Rangel said the incident “was over as quickly as it started.”

Most of the inmates at Juvenile Hall have gang connections, Rangel said, but the individuals involved were not from rival factions. In fact, one was from as far south as San Clemente, while the other one was from Fullerton.

Rangel said a total of 18 staffers responded to the incident in addition to the three staffers assigned to the unit, which held 30 minors.

The injury came when one probation officer went to physically separate two minors fighting and was hit by a flying chair. The officer was taken to UCI Medical Center after 911 was called and was released that night, he said.

Rangel said the entire institution was placed on “code yellow,” which slows down all activities.

Initial investigations have been completed, Rangel said, noting that there were four main perpetrators and another 16 who joined the fray.

A total of 20 minors are facing additional disciplinary action, Rangel said. Decisions on whether to make criminal referrals will be made in the next few days, he said.

Rangel said staffers responded to the incident with full speed and efficiency. Muir acknowledged the situation was handled effectively by staffers but disputes that it went as smoothly as Rangel said.

For example, Muir said, the common area where the incident occurred on Saturday is designed to hold up to 20 minors. But last weekend, there were 30 minors in the area, she said.

Officers also ran out of handcuffs to detain minors, according to the scene reports that OCEA received, Muir said. And there haven’t been clear debriefings, she argued, adding that she got some of the key information regarding the incident from a reporter.

“That’s part of the problem,” she said. “The fact that I’m hearing these details from the press — about how many staffers were there, what charges are being filed — is another example of the communication problems we’re talking about.”

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