Trying to teach peace

Alternatives: Program keeps kids out of trouble while showing them options to violence while they are still young.

July 28, 2000|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Every morning this week, Pfc. Donna Rowlette has herded excited, antsy children into a classroom to learn about anger management and substance abuse.

Three weeks ago, she would have never dreamed she would be doing that. It was about that time that someone from the Harper's Choice Community Partnership mentioned that the village had an extra $800 for a youth program. Rowlette didn't waste any time.

"I drew up a proposal for this program in about a week," said Rowlette, a Howard County police officer stationed in Harper's Choice as part of the state's HotSpot anti-crime program.

A couple of weeks later, with local volunteers, business contributions and the $800, Rowlette's vision has become a five-day program designed to teach at-risk children and teen-agers strategies for violence prevention.

"Police are usually very reactive, mostly making arrests," Rowlette said. "I wanted to be proactive.

"We need to plant the seed in young kids that they should not be sitting around or causing trouble," Rowlette said.

Youths throughout Harper's Choice scrambled to sign up for the program: Rowlette said there was room for 40 people, and 40 are enrolled.

She said she recruited children for the program by approaching parents at the village center and putting up fliers throughout Harper's Choice.

Rowlette works out of the new satellite police station in Harper's Choice Village Center. The station opened in June as part of the HotSpot program that is the driving force behind Rowlette's five-day youth program.

Harper's Choice is one of 62 areas in the state designated a HotSpot. That means the area can receive state funding for a satellite police station and crime-prevention programs, such as the one run this week at Swansfield Elementary School.

Rowlette's program has attracted youths ages 6 to 14 to the school, where they are split into two age groups for their morning lessons about violence prevention.

During the younger group's class Wednesday, volunteers asked the children to talk about one thing that made them happy. Answers ranged from a childish, "When I get to do what I want," to the more grown-up observation, "That God is there for me."

The group spent the rest of the morning role-playing feelings and how to act appropriately on them.

Police and volunteers from the Media Conflict Resolution Center in Ellicott City and the Columbia Addiction Center have covered anger management and substance abuse in four morning sessions this week.

"This gives the kids some structured time in a sometimes unstructured environment," said Judy Pasquantonio, a volunteer for the anger-management section of the program.

"We want to give them the awareness that feelings are OK and that there are appropriate ways to communicate," she said.

Pasquantonio works with juveniles and outreach in her job with the Howard County Sheriff's Department.

Rowlette said she chose volunteers for the program based on their everyday interaction with the community.

To pique interest in the program, police also have provided the children with free lunches and afternoon activities, including miniature golf, tennis, lacrosse and trips to batting cages.

"The afternoon activities are really important because the kids need to learn how to fill their time with constructive activities," Rowlette said.

Today, the last day of the program, the youths will have a party. Program participants will get certificates. Older children were also allowed to keep a tennis racket after their tennis lesson Wednesday. McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Safeway each donated food.

"The program was pulled together at the last minute, when we realized we had a few extra dollars available," said Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman.

"Like Officer Rowlette said, imagine what we can do next year with more planning." Llewellyn said.

Despite the tight turnaround for the program, Rowlette said she had no trouble finding volunteers.

"You can't say no to her," volunteer Eileen Dewey said.

Dewey, a clinical social worker for the Columbia Addiction Center, taught the substance-abuse part of the program. She had the younger group of children sit in a circle on the floor and asked each to make up a story about why a Pokemon character wouldn't smoke.

Police applied for HotSpot funding for Harper's Choice in late September and won a three-year grant of $273,972 that became available Jan. 1.

This year, all $91,324 comes from the state HotSpot initiative, which is federally funded. The federal contribution will gradually decrease over the remaining two years, and Howard County will supply fundto keep the total at $91,324 each year.

HotSpot funding appears to have worked in the first area of Columbia to receive the designation from the state. Violent crime dropped 40 percent in the part of Long Reach that was named a HotSpot three years ago.

Rowlette said the success in Long Reach made Harper's Choice residents less wary of being designated a HotSpot.

"They welcomed us with open arms," she said. "Now that everyone knows the extra money and resources that come with being a HotSpot, people don't mind the label as much."

Rowlette has also submitted her five-day program proposal to the statewide HotSpot committee and hopes other HotSpots will use it as a model.

Regardless, Rowlette said she plans to expand the program in Harper's Choice next summer.

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