Midnight basketball urged to curb teen mischief

January 24, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

Come July and August, bored teen-agers and young adults who want to avoid trouble on the streets may go to the court to have fun -- dribbling and dunking basketballs late at night inside a high school in Oakland Mills.

Last month the Columbia Association proposed a $9,000 pilot midnight summer basketball program for 17- to 24-year-olds in its $33.4 million operating budget for fiscal 1996. Eight teams with 10 players each would play from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays in July and August at Oakland Mills High School.

If approved after public hearings, the program would be the first of its kind in the county.

"My hope is that the young people in the community and area would find it to be a terrific opportunity for a weekend night," said Ann Scherr, assistant director of Columbia Association's Community Services division.

The program attempts to occupy youngsters during those times when they are most likely to get into mischief, she said.

But the proposal has raised some concern among Oakland Mills residents who fear midnight basketball would draw unruly youths into the area. They are concerned about traffic, noise and the potential increase in vandalism around the school and neighborhood.

The Columbia Association would hire private security and notify police when games end to prevent trouble, Ms. Scherr said.

To participate, young adults would have to stay out of trouble and attend workshops on AIDS prevention, job interview skills and other topics, she said. Those convicted of serious crimes would not be allowed to participate, Ms. Scherr said. Others may be allowed to participate on a case-by-case basis.

Charles Thomas, recreation coordinator at the Teen Center in Oakland Mills, would manage the basketball program. "I think it can work well here in Columbia," said Mr. Thomas, a former professional basketball player in Australia. "Hopefully, we can grow and continue to do it in the winter."

"The main thing that we're trying to do is keep some of the young adults active," he added. "We'd rather have them in the gym competing athletically than on the streets."

The country's first midnight basketball program began in 1986 in Prince George's County and since has spread to more than 40 U.S. inner cities.

Midnight basketball is so popular that last year it was included for matching federal funds in President Clinton's $30.2 billion crime bill.

Nearly a decade old, midnight basketball here would be new.

"We've never had anything that late as far as a sports program," said Allan Harden, recreation supervisor for Howard County Recreation and Parks. He said it was a good idea if it would give youngsters something constructive to do.

Sgt. Bo Haslup, head of the county police youth services section, said he supports anything that allows youngsters to choose something positive.

Under the Columbia Association's proposal, each basketball team would play each other once. Two games would be held Friday and Saturday nights for seven weeks. The final week would be reserved for playoffs.

One site was chosen so participants could watch each other play, Ms. Scherr said.

Though the Columbia Association has set aside $9,000 to cover supplies and equipment, teams still would need $200 sponsorships, Ms. Scherr said.

Residents in Oakland Mills have mixed reactions.

Lonnie King, 58, a self-employed businessman, said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with it. It's not hurting anybody."

The program makes sense for him financially, he said. "I'd much rather see my tax dollars used for midnight basketball rather than to hire four policemen."

But Martha Lee, a longtime Oakland Mills resident disagreed. She said she is concerned about participants potentially adding to the debris and speeding in the area late at night.

"I think the kids need recreation, but they [officials] always have a way of dumping everything on Oakland Mills," Ms. Lee said. "I think it's a good idea, but why put it in Oakland Mills? I don't think anybody wants it."

Ms. Lee said the program should be placed at another school -- one that is separated from residential homes.

The Columbia Association considered putting the program in other areas near schools, such as at Wilde Lake, for example, but Wilde Lake High School is closed, Ms. Scherr said.

The Columbia Association thought Oakland Mills would be a good location because it has a lot of young people and a satellite police office, she said.

Ms. Scherr said that if problems arose and residents didn't like the program, it would be discontinued.

Oakland Mills Village Board Chairman David Hatch favors the program, saying organized activities for county youngsters are needed.

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