Failing the kids

July 29, 2002

IT MAKES no sense.

At a time when Baltimore is in the grip of an epidemic of often fatal youth violence, the city is doing scandalously little to keep kids away from night-time trouble on sweltering streets. Consider:

Of 44 city recreation centers open Monday through Friday, only 10 are open after 6 p.m. - and they close by 8 p.m.

An additional 18 recreation centers, operated by the Police Athletic League, all close at 6 p.m.

The chief justification, predictably, is a lack of staff and money. Indeed, the city's allocation for recreation this year was cut by $2.1 million to $11.7 million, and a truncated summer schedule allows the centers to stay open longer during the school year.

PAL, too, cites budget constraints as a reason for the lack of evening hours. During the previous two summers, its centers stayed open until 10 p.m.

But this isn't really economizing. If kids don't have anything better to do, they hang out at corners, getting into mischief - or worse. When that happens, policing costs, particularly overtime, soar. In the end, there are no savings.

As Mayor Martin O'Malley is trying to re-energize the troubled parks agency, its recreation component should be rethought; critical questions need to be asked and answered.

Why, for example, are only 3,453 kids enrolled in the city's summertime recreation programs and only 1,600 in the PAL centers? And why do only 748 people volunteer in city rec and parks programs, when more than 4,600 volunteers pitch in every month in Baltimore County?

And why do kids drop out of programs once they reach their mid-teens? Is this because program offerings are faulty?

Like libraries, well-run recreation programs can be an effective antidote to the dispiriting decay and despair that engulf so many Baltimore neighborhoods. But when a lower Park Heights recreation center is open for only three hours, from 3 to 6 p.m., and Gardenville's center from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., it looks like the city is giving up on its youths.

Violence prevention cannot be regarded solely as a policing task. Interesting and accessible recreation programs can and must play a bigger role. Otherwise, the recent depressing headlines about shootings will become even more frequent.

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