Drug use, crime by youths targeted

Commissioners review report on problems, possible solutions

February 06, 2000|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

From 1989 to 1997, the number of Carroll County students suspended from school more than doubled. From 1991 to 1997, the number of county youths age 13 or younger entering the juvenile justice system rose nearly 90 percent. By the end of the 1990s, the number of county teen-agers seeking treatment for heroin use ranked third among the five counties in the metropolitan area.

County officials are blaming poor child-rearing practices for these statistics, and are considering new anti-drug programs, ranging from government endorsement of "family values" and faith-based marriage counseling to greater availability of long-term care for substance users.

"These problems took years to develop and they'll take years to fix," said county executive assistant Robert A. Bair, who has drafted a report for the county commissioners outlining the problems and possible responses. "We're not talking about an overnight solution."

His report was compiled after nearly a year of research, including meetings with local agencies involved with substance use prevention or juvenile crime. The commissioners are reviewing the document and are expected to hold a symposium next month to seek public comment.

In many respects, the local initiative would mirror the Clinton administration's programs for cutting the drug problem in half by 2007, by making the nation's children the focal point in the war on drugs. Last year, the federal government spent nearly $18 billion on the White House plan, which seeks to curb substance use through education, treatment and law enforcement.

Local officials spent about $4 million on juvenile crime and substance-use prevention programs last year, county records show. Bair believes headway can be made in Carroll without an increase in taxpayer spending.

"We've had government programs fighting this stuff since day one and we haven't made much of a difference," Bair said. "If this is going to be effective, it's got to be a partnership that includes teens, parents, teachers, law enforcement officials, the business community and the faith community. The commissioners would just be the titular head."

Several of the strategies detailed in Bair's report have been tried in communities across the country -- from Fort Worth, Texas, to Santa Barbara, Calif. -- with varying success.

A cornerstone of the most successful strategies is youth involvement, experts say.

"It brings them to the dialogue. They become part of the problem-solving process rather than just the focus of it," said Aaron Kipnis, a founding member of Pro-youth Coalition in Santa Barbara. The group, which includes clergy, educators, parents and elected officials, was formed five years ago to curb youth violence.

Since the coalition's inception, juvenile crime in Santa Barbara, a city of about 90,000, has dropped dramatically -- from 400 incidents in 1995 to 40 last year, said Kipnis. Positive results also have been noted in Fort Worth, where gang violence has dropped by half since 1995, when the Boys & Girls Clubs of America began working with gang members, offering the youths mentoring and recreational activities, said Frank Sanchez, who oversees delinquency prevention programs for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America from Atlanta.

"People are looking for a program that is the silver bullet. There isn't one," said Sanchez. "We've found it takes a community approach. There has to be support from the community -- programs must be designed with the needs and interests of the kids in mind."

The three-member Board of County Commissioners seems eager to devise a plan of action for Carroll. When they took office in December 1998, the commissioners vowed to reduce crime and substance use in the county.

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