Learning about life on the water can sometimes stop life of crime

November 06, 1990|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Although he now lives in Remington, Wayne Cook grew up in South Baltimore, near the water. Did he have a special affinity for the sea? "I used to get seasick," he says.

What Cook had a special affinity for was low-key delinquency -- breaking and entering, breaking windows, cutting school. In seventh grade, he says, he went to school maybe three, four times.

So what happened? "I had to repeat the seventh grade," Cook says.

He was, by age 16, what is known in current jargon as an "at-risk" youth. He hadn't done anything serious -- yet. He had a probation officer and an attitude. The former, worried about the latter, decided Cook was ready for Fort Smallwood Marine Institute.

A year later, Cook has his high school equivalency degree. He is currently enrolled and carrying a full load of classes at the Community College of Baltimore. He works part time at the Inner Harbor Marina, docking and gassing boats. Instead of needing a lawyer, he wants to be one. What accounts for the turnaround? Basically, scuba diving and sailing lessons.

And, Cook no longer gets seasick.

That's how the program works at what director David Paltrineri calls "the best-kept secret in Baltimore" -- Fort Smallwood Marine Institute. The fact that the unusual school-marine program is in Anne Arundel County, in the park named for the Revolutionary War Gen. William Smallwood, may be part of the reason it remains little-known.

From the park, the sweeping view of the shoreline is impressive. The institute itself comprises a mobile home and a small, wooden cottage, where classes are held. On a typical day, bathing suits are hung to dry on the porch railing, giving the cottage the look of a small summer home for a very large family.

The casual atmosphere is fitting, reflective of Fort Smallwood's casual, indirect approach to counseling students who go there, most of whom are boys from South Baltimore. Instead of confronting the youths about their problems, Fort Smallwood's staff concentrates on teaching skills such as scuba-diving and sailing.

"It's much easier to counsel a kid on the stern of a boat," said Paltrineri. "It's like two friends sitting on a bed sharing secrets."

In fact, two boyhood friends started the institute 21 years ago in Florida and watched it grow into 24 schools.

Frank Orlando and Robert Rosof, both of St. Petersburg, Fla., grew up to be a judge and a marine biologist respectively, Paltrineri said.

The judge, at wit's end over how to work with the juvenile delinquents he saw, accepted the marine biologist's invitation to take the boys out on an expedition. The Associated Marine Institutes Inc. grew out of that first outing.

Linda D'Amario Rossi, secretary of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services, first encountered the concept while working in Texas. When she came to Maryland, Paltrineri said, she approached the non-profit group about setting up an institute here.

The department pays the school about $36 a day per client to work with an average of 35 students who are referred to the institute through the department. After less than three years, there are no good local figures on Fort Smallwood's success, but Paltrineri says the national recidivism rate is 25 percent.

It is, by those accounts, far cheaper and far more successful than most juvenile detention facilities, such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in northern Baltimore County. But Fort Smallwood has the luxury of picking and choosing the youths it will work with.

The youths -- the student body tends to be male, although females are accepted -- are asked primarily to show up and participate. There is little emphasis on grades, Paltrineri said, but a lot of attention paid to trying.

Attendance is the single most important factor in "graduating" from Fort Smallwood, which takes the average youth about six months. The marine activities are not required, but most of the students eventually succumb to the lure of swimming, sailing and scuba diving.

"Let's face it. A kid can learn everything we teach here and if he leaves, then sails to the Bahamas, then begins stealing when he gets there, we haven't done our job," Paltrineri said. "Our biggest concern is that they don't break the law again. If they leave here and don't learn anything about sailing or scuba diving, that's fine."

Attendance was what helped Cook, who started at Fort Smallwood last October, make his mark. Paltrineri considers the young man one of the school's success stories.

"I went because I thought I had to," Cook said. "So I had good attendance. Then, I thought, it's a little silly not to go."

Cook made it sound so easy. Paltrineri, at his side at the time, just grinned.

Paltrineri said later, "It's interesting to hear their side of it."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.