The Ventura Girl’s School Riots

It was built to change delinquent girls though education and compassion.

by Richard Senate

A dream was shattered on the night of February 27, 1920 when the girls of the Ventura School for Girls rioted after the departure of a beloved doctor from the school staff.

Established on the upper Ventura Avenue, just outside of Ventura City limits it was founded with the best progressive intentions of 1912. It was built to change delinquent girls though education and compassion into socially acceptable young women. It was hoped this idealistic approach would solve all the problems with criminal behavior exhibited by young girls in the whole state of California.

But there were hints that everything wasn’t as idealistic as the public was told. In 1918 The Ventura Free Press uncovered stories of terrible punishments inflicted on “difficult” girls. Those who failed to comply with the program were subjected to ice cold baths that could last twenty minutes. Some disobedient inmates were subjected to forced injections of Apomorphine that would induce violent vomiting as a form of punishment. Some staff walked out, other blew the whistle on the disciple inflicted on the girls. These warning signs were ignored and the harsh treatments continued with little change. Any “student” who showed sighs of disobedience were given “treatments for hysteria.”

The mask of compassion was pulled away when the girls rioted after the dismissal of a beloved female doctor from the staff. On the February night the girls, screaming, broke windows, smashed furnishing and took to the roofs of the dormitories, thrown anything they could find at staff. The staff at the school were unable to control the insurrection and they called the Ventura County Sheriff’s office. Sheriff McMartin and a quickly assembled posse descended on the school to establish order. They were met with a shower of projectiles The Sherill was struck on the head by a tossed chair, Deputy Juan Reyes was knocked out by a dropped flowerpot. With Billy clubs and and much effort the riot was quelled and twenty-five girls were attested and handcuffed. The riot didn’t end until 3:00 a.m. The Twenty-five “ringleaders” were taken to the county jail and locked in the drunk tank. In the confusion six girls escaped, four were recaptured but two disappeared, last seen in a truck bound for Los Angeles.

The next day saw the girls attempt to set fire to the buildings. The riots did cause a new examination of conditions at the school and in 1921 the state moved in to take control from the local boards that administered the reform school. The school continued on until 1962 when the inmates were transferred to Camarillo and it would close for good in 1970. An attempt at reform that failed.

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