Blurring the Lines

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In Hillsborough County, Fla., school officials and police work closely together to protect members of the school community.

Tampa, Fla.

In a bungalow ringed by patrol cars on a residential street here, Albert London works with police to process a fresh batch of delinquents plucked from the streets on a sticky spring afternoon.A police officer summons up one teenager's criminal history from a bank of computers filled with court, police, and school records. Meanwhile, London, a school psychologist, calls a principal to inform him that one of his pupils, an accused car thief, will not be attending school the next day.

In this law-and-order state, school officials like London enjoy unprecedented access to juvenile records. That leeway can be traced chiefly to a Florida law that requires police to inform principals within 24 hours if one of their students is arrested for a serious crime. As a result of the law and a get-tough attitude, Hillsborough County has forged one of the nation's coziest school-police partnerships in a place where once turf-conscious agencies now stay in close touch.

The relationship includes the joint operation of an assessment center, law-enforcement-sponsored training sessions, and the sharing of information about students and staff members.

The streamlined communications system reduces duplication of services, say its advocates, and ultimately helps safeguard children and staff.

Others are a bit leery of the growing cooperation between cops and educators.

Nonetheless, district officials believe the relationship they have forged is necessary.

"The school system was operating in a vacuum before," says Kelly Chambers, a district spokeswoman. "We knew we had to work together."

Hillsborough County, on Florida's Gulf Coast, is roughly the size of Rhode Island. The county stretches from the streets of downtown Tampa to the strawberry fields and cattle ranches that pockmark the perimeter. It's an ethnically diverse cluster of working-class and wealthy neighborhoods whose population is fast approaching 900,000.

Central to the county's combined law-enforcement-school effort is the Juvenile Assessment Center where a crew of 69 staff members--mostly school, police, or social workers--work around the clock to send accused criminals to detention centers, young victims to shelters, and truants home to their parents.

Inside this way station--where young people stay for about six hours--employees process an average of 50 Tampa Bay-area teenagers each day. As they arrive, delinquents are conveyed through a metal cage, searched for weapons and drugs, handcuffed, fingerprinted, given Breathalyzer tests, and then ushered into a holding area.

After completing a 139-question psychological exam and a counseling session, the accused burglars, batterers, and thieves mostly spend their time mesmerized by the television set that dangles from the ceiling. If fights erupt, guards have two main methods to keep order: a chair with seat belt restraints and "time out" rooms with shatter-and-soundproof glass.

Since it opened in 1993, the Juvenile Assessment Center has become a $2 million-a-year enterprise.

In another section of the 15-room complex, truants sit in a mock classroom furnished with undersized wooden desks as they wait to get picked up by their parents. There are no games, no lessons, and talking is prohibited. London says this stimulus-free environment helps to keep the youths calm.

Since it opened in 1993, the center has become a $2 million-a-year enterprise that is kept in business by the joint financial support of nearly every social service agency in town--the sheriff's office, the school district, child welfare groups--and the state.

Through the assessment center and other police and school efforts, the open channels help alert teachers in the 143,000-student district to young offenders in their classrooms, shield children from potentially dangerous school employees through background checks, and funnel needed services to young victims of crime.

In a sterile conference room at the Tampa headquarters of the Florida department of law enforcement, Jay Clayton advises his audience of educators, church officials, and counselors to check a toddler's head and back for signs of abuse. A diaper-padded bottom, for instance, is less likely to yield visible scars. Dark- and light-colored bruises often mean different weapons have been employed, he adds.

"Loops and straight lines on an arm or back are suspicious and could mean the child was whipped with an electrical cord," says Clayton, a detective with the St. Petersburg, Fla., police.

Beyond the physical clues, teachers and others should check to see if the child's story matches his or her injury and mark any dramatic mood shifts.

Young people who are sexually molested, for example, might not want to change their clothes for physical education class. They may be particularly withdrawn, exhibit infantile behavior, or use sexually explicit language, he explains.

Earlier in the day, Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., gives the group hints on hiring the right people.

He distributes samples of employment questionnaires that ask job seekers if they've been convicted of any crime, from rape to lewd behavior. And he passes out model permission forms that authorize the release of an applicant's employment records, military service, and volunteer experience.

Later, another panel of local officials tells the audience about the sundry court documents, arrest records, and other materials that are available from Hillsborough County, often just for the price of a photocopy.

Stephens explains that establishing a paper trail can protect school officials from possible litigation if the employee ever commits a crime.

Not so long ago, the California Supreme Court ruled that a district could be held liable for providing positive job references for a former employee who had been accused of sexual misconduct aimed at female students.

"If you end up in court, this is a great way to say these were the procedures we took," Stephens says.

"These forms can screen out pedophiles or perpetrators before they serve a day behind the wheel of a school bus or in your schools," adds Michelle Jezycki, the project director for the Missing and Exploited Children Comprehensive Action Program. Her organization receives a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to run the training here--as well as 26 other sites around the country--on a periodic basis.

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