Blurring the Lines, Part III

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Since the nation's 12th-largest district began the association a few years ago, officials have been slowly scratching away at a rising juvenile crime rate.

At that point, the county's reunification team took over. The multiagency group of child advocates, counselors, police, and health care workers assisted in the transition for the child to return home to her father.

Most children who are missing from school are not snatched away, though: They bolt of their own free will. Nationally, nearly 450,000 children run away from home every year, federal figures show.

"One of our peak times is when report cards come out," says Barry Drew, a director of Hillsborough County's child and family counseling program, which runs a runaway project called Safe Place.

Under the program, Tampa Bay-area teachers who believe a student has reason to be afraid--or is not inclined--to venture home, may usher them to one of 40 around-the-clock sites spread throughout the county that have been designated "safe places." Among those that participate are Domino's Pizza, Home Depot, and the YMCA. The manager of the site then calls a county social worker who escorts the youth to a shelter for counseling and evaluation.

On the law-enforcement side, police say that the collaboration has been a welcome relief. Before the assessment center opened, for instance, officers would cart truants and delinquents around in their squad cars for hours because there was no place to deposit them. Hillsborough County detention centers had too few beds so "officers had to babysit kids in the back seat," one policeman recalls.

So far, district officials are equally pleased with the partnership. Since the nation's 12th-largest district began the association a few years ago, officials have been slowly scratching away at a rising juvenile crime rate.

On-campus firearm possession charges have shrunk by one-third, and the number of property crimes and burglaries on school grounds has decreased by 5 percent. Police and school officials continue to work side by side at the assessment center to crack down on auto theft, one of the fastest-growing crimes among the Suncoast's greenest lawbreakers.

Though they have no dollar figures to prove it, state education leaders are convinced that the united approach saves money.

"This is better, faster, cheaper," says Bob Bedford, the state's deputy education commissioner. "It's very businesslike to coordinate delivery so agencies can try to stop problems early rather than letting things get worse and worse," he says.

Many teachers, who frequently act as law enforcers by blowing the whistle on child abuse, student harassment, and vandalism, are also thankful for the assistance.

"Teachers are physically at risk," says Steve Fischer, the assistant executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers' Association, the region's largest teachers' union. Last year, there were 223 cases of physical assault against school personnel, most of whom were teachers, district records show. "If a student is involved in a serious offense, the teacher has a right to know that for their own protection," he says.

Some parents have balked at this information sharing as an invasion of a student's privacy.

Principal Stewart and other administrators say that police records are an invaluable security tool. At his previous post at a detention-center school, Stewart could scan certain computer databases to get a picture of his charges' criminal past. Now, he keeps tabs on his middle school students by sharing information with law-enforcement officers.

"If I find a student who's convicted of 32 auto thefts, I'm not going to let him back into the classroom," he says, listing several alternative placements.

The data also help administrators thwart such student-on-student offenses as sexual harassment. "If we find out that Johnny attacked Susie off-campus the night before, we make sure the two don't sit together the next day in class," one school official says.

Still, despite the protection it might afford them, some school employees would rather not be notified of a child's criminal record at all because the information might stigmatize the students.

"I wouldn't want to red flag them," says Beryl George, a teacher at Hill Junior High. "We don't have bad students--we have students who've made poor choices," she says.

Some parents have balked at this information sharing as an invasion of a student's privacy.

"Most parents here say if [their child] screwed up or messed up, then they should have thought about [the consequences] before," but some parents don't want the arrest information to get out, says William Knowles, who manages crime-prevention programs for the local Urban League.

While such free flow of data may irk parents who want to keep their children's nefarious activities secret, civil liberties experts say a court challenge would be difficult to win unless the school worker flagrantly broadcasted the information to uninterested parties.

"I'm sure there are parents who may find that upsetting that schools have access to that information," says Andy Kayton, the legal director of the ACLU of Florida. But the state law that authorizes educators' access "doesn't appear to violate anyone's right to privacy," he says.

Even with these bureaucratic procedures in place, some parents believe that the county's security system is not as proficient as it should be.

Bunny Begue, the president of the Hillsborough County PTA, says that information often doesn't reach the right people fast enough.

A child was attacked recently at a middle school by another student who had been arrested three times at his previous school, says Begue.

"Everybody is fed up with kids moving from classroom to classroom and making trouble wherever they go," Begue says. "Sometimes, the paperwork doesn't get there."

Despite the bureaucratic sluggishness, national education leaders, like the National School Safety Center's Stephens, have applauded the district's aplomb at blurring the lines between public institutions.

In order to preserve their reputation, many school districts would deny a crime problem exists before daring to fix it, he says.

In a recent NSSC survey, school administrators from across the country acknowledged almost universally that school crime is on the rise--but apparently not in their own backyard: 98 percent said it's increasing; 37 percent said, not in their district.

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