Working for community

HotSpot: A Howard County police corporal devotes her time to meeting and helping youngsters in Columbia's Harper's Choice village.

January 13, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Even when she's not in her Howard County police uniform, Cpl. Donna Rowlette is a commanding - but loving - presence in the halls of Harper's Choice Middle School.

From casually talking to pupils in the middle school's after-school program to running her own youth group, the Harper's Choice HotSpot coordinator has made it her business to be there for the community's children.

Her success at building relationships and trust with the Columbia pupils offers an interesting perspective on the political debate about the value of the state-funded HotSpots program.

The program seems to be as useful as each HotSpot community coordinator makes it. And, by all accounts, Rowlette works hard to make it more than useful.

Wearing an unimposing gray Harper's Choice HotSpot sweatshirt and black pants, she popped her head in last week on Cougar Time, the after-school program.

"Do we need to have a talk?" Rowlette asked one glum-looking girl. The girl smiled and shook her head.

Later, when Rowlette stepped over a boy sitting in the hallway, he looked up and assured her: "Don't worry. I'm not in trouble."

Funded by a HotSpot grant from the state Office of Crime Control and Prevention, Cougar Time's connection to law enforcement is not limited to its $22,000 yearly check.

Rowlette regularly stops by to talk to children and sometimes offers lessons on crime issues. She is not paid for her involvement with the program, but she says the middle school's success is important to her.

"This is her second home - or maybe her first home," Cougar Time Director Mishawn Kendrick said.

The after-school program, which is funded through next year, runs until about 4:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday and divides about 115 children into nine study groups.

Kendrick said teachers recommend children for Cougar Time. The program's goal is to improve academics, not prevent crime, but Kendrick said the children - and the community - benefit from a few structured hours after school.

"If they're here for two hours, that's two hours that they aren't out doing things in the community that could get them in trouble," Kendrick said.

Rowlette operates a separate after-school program at the Harper's Choice police substation every Wednesday. Called HotShots, it combines frank discussions about drugs, alcohol and behavior with tennis lessons.

"Police usually deal with kids on a reactive basis," Rowlette said. "I wanted to do something proactive."

In its second year, the program is funded entirely by community contributions. Putting on three six-week sessions costs about $4,000, Rowlette said.

On Wednesday, a bunch of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders gathered to learn about the damaging effects of alcohol and take a second tennis lesson.

"Why is alcohol bad for you?" Rowlette asked.

"It destroys your liver and your esophagus and your blood vessels," Keon Jackson, 13, answered immediately.

"Obviously, these kids have had the `Don't do drugs' talk many times before," said Lisa House, an alternative-education teacher who helps with the HotShots program. "They know they should say no, but we try to make it more real to them - give them scenarios and teach them ways to say no."

Throughout the afternoon, the children spouted both keen observations ("Alcohol is a gateway drug," said 12-year-old Demetrick Richardson) and middle-school-style truths ("She is straight-up addicted!" 13-year-old Thorne Wilson said while watching a video about a teen-age alcoholic).

Rowlette and House learned about the Harper's Choice community, too. One young person said someone had asked him to sell drugs, to which he said he responded, "No, I don't swing that way."

His comment highlighted what Rowlette calls "an unplanned benefit" of the HotShots program: Police have forged a pipeline of information between them and the children.

"Kids will run up to me and tell me things," she said. "They feel more comfortable with us now, and they'll open up more."

The children seemed unfazed by spending hours in a police substation. They bounded around the small room at Harper's Choice Village Center and practiced their tennis swings.

"The kids get a big kick out of meeting authorities," House said. "They love when Capt. [Bill] McMahon comes to spend time with them. It helps break down stereotypes they have about authority."

It's the parents, Rowlette and House said, who sometimes squirm at the thought of their children spending so much time with the police.

To allay their concerns, she recommends that worried parents talk to the parents of children who have been through the program.

"The truth is, we have a mix of kids here," she said. "We do have some who have had behavior problems, but it's a very diverse group so that they can learn from each other."

Half of the children stay at the police station to listen to Rowlette and other adults, such as House and Judy Pasquantonio from the Howard County Sheriff's Office, while the other half takes tennis lessons at nearby Columbia Athletic Club.

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