Youth center planned for Harper's Choice Police hope facility will help stem crime

July 24, 1996|By Erica C. Harrington | Erica C. Harrington,SUN STAFF

Responding to a sharp increase in juvenile crime, the Howard County Police Department is planning a youth center in Columbia's Village of Harper's Choice that would offer academic, athletic and arts activities for youths ages 14 to 19.

The center, to be situated in a vacant county building at Cedar Lane Park, would be an alternative to typical anti-gang and anti-drug initiatives, drawing on police, parks and recreation officials and volunteers from Columbia's Life Line Posse, a youth group.

All the organizers need now is the money, said Sgt. Kevin Burnett, the project coordinator. Police have applied for $153,000 in grants from various organizations and hope to get private funding, too, he said. He said he hopes to have the center open by the time school starts in August.

"We want to have constructive alternatives," said Burnett, one of two police liaisons assigned to high schools to build rapport with students. "Sometimes you have to be nontraditional to be preventive."

Howard County's juvenile crime rate was 82 percent higher in the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 1995, according to the department's crime report released in June.

The severity of those crimes also appeared to be increasing. For example, police arrested 33 juveniles for robbery during the first three months of this year, up from three during the same period in 1995.

The county has a number of school-based anti-crime programs, including the high school liaison program, D.A.R.E. (Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education) and G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education and Training).

But the proposed youth center in Harper's Choice would focus on what teen-agers do after school, Burnett said, in an effort to ward off the boredom many juveniles cite as a reason for getting involved in crime.

"With the cuts in intramural [sports] and the new grade-point average requirements where some kids can't play sports, there will be even more kids with nothing to do," he said.

The planned youth center would have a computer lab, homework tutoring and basketball teams.

Nonathletes could participate in drama, dance, martial arts and music provided by the Life Line Posse, a youth group headed by the Rev. Stephen Williams, pastor of True Life Church in Harper's Choice.

Life Line Posse emphasizes education through the arts to give teen-agers a chance to try activities not usually available to them. "A lot of kids don't like sports and want other options," Williams said.

Williams said the center could break down the defenses of some teen-agers who have had bad experiences with police.

"Kids think police are fictitious people. It's cool to think 'police are out to get me,' " he said. "This can bridge the gap in the relationship between the Police Department and kids. It could get rid of the stigma."

He said the center can be a part of Columbia's realization that crime is increasing in the once-quiet suburban town.

"If the powers that be get their heads out of the ground instead of waiting for Columbia to turn into L.A., we can deal with reality," he said. "What's a few dollars when we're talking about lives?"

Barbara Nugent, an official with the Department of Recreation and Parks, said the police proposal coincides with the department's mission of teaching young people to use their leisure time constructively.

"Children need to feel safe and be a part of a group," she said. "Kids don't want to be tagged as 'bad' just because they're hanging out."

Howard County school board member Stephen Bounds said the center is a great idea for young people who would be home alone after school. "Anything that can provide wholesome activities where teens are not alone to get involved with risky behaviors is a good thing," he said.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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