'Latchkey' students are growing worry in Howard County After-school programs lag behind social changes


When the day ends each afternoon at Columbia's Owen Brown Middle School, the real work begins for librarians half a block away at the East Columbia branch library.

Dozens of 10- to 13-year-old students go to the spacious facility to do homework and research. Some bury their heads in books and work quietly, but many not-so-quiet students gossip and tease one another and play on computers.

They are supervised only by busy, increasingly harried librarians.

"It's like rush hour over there," says Michael Goins, principal at Owen Brown Middle. "And the longer the kids are there, the more the potential increases for them to do things they shouldn't do."

The Owen Brown students, like many other middle school students in Howard County, fall into a gray area of after-school supervision: Their parents work full-time jobs and aren't available to watch them, but many of the young people believe they are too old for day care.

Even if they wanted supervision, only two full-scale, after-school programs -- serving a total of about 60 students -- are available to the more than 9,000 middle-schoolers in the county.

While some middle school students play after-school sports, many others make their way to relatives' homes, to empty parking lots for skateboarding or to The Mall in Columbia.

Still others go home alone -- some to watch younger siblings -- until their parents return from work.

Some teachers, social workers and law enforcement officials are concerned by this.

In the first 10 months of this year, juvenile crime in the county increased nearly 50 percent over the same period last year, and teen runaway rates are soaring, police say.

National data show that most crime committed by youngsters happens soon after school lets out and declines through the evening hours, says Sgt. Rick Maltz, head of the juvenile division for Howard County police.

"A good portion of our kids have no structured time after school," Maltz says. "It's a problem when their idea of an adventure is going to the mall. [Middle school age] is the age when we can make the most impact with kids. We've really, really got to do something."

Last week, Maltz submitted a grant proposal to the governor's office for money to start an after-school program for children ages 9 through 13.

If approved, the program will likely involve sports, computers, tutorials and field trips, Maltz says, but no precise plan has been developed.

"This can't be like another three hours of school," Maltz says. "The kids have to plan it and like it or it just won't work."

Student resistance

Even if Maltz gets the grant, which he hopes will serve about 50 youngsters, getting students to sign up is another story.

Preteens and young teen-agers often say they don't need baby sitters and they simply want to be left alone after school.

Shannon Curtin, 13, a River Hill eighth-grader, attends an after-school program at Clarksville Middle School but says she feels silly doing so. "I mean, I baby-sit children who are 8 years old -- and I can't stay home alone for three hours after school? Why?" she says.

Jackie De Fazio, president of the American Association of University Women in Illinois, which released a long-term study of middle school girls this year, says "there's a certain amount of bravado tied into" students not wanting supervision. "I personally don't believe that kids don't want supervision."

This fall, when Howard County's Department of Recreation and Parks offered after-school care -- for about $130 a week -- at six county middle schools, dozens of parents signed pre-registration questionnaires, but only Clarksville Middle School had enough interested students to open a program, says Laura Wetherald of the recreation department.

Peer pressure

"The parents are interested, but they always say, 'Now let's see if I can convince my child to do this,' " says Chrissy Rassa, a recreation department coordinator. "The children are worried that their friends will see them -- they stay away from the doorways because they don't want to be seen. The peer pressure is strong."

Aside from the Clarksville program, the Columbia Association's Teen Center in Oakland Mills village is the only other full-scale, after-school program for middle schoolers in the county. Oakland Mills also has a drop-in teen center, known as the Rec.

Additionally, each county middle school has after-school academic and athletic programs, called intramurals, that last from 45 to 90 minutes, but some charge fees.

On average, 125 students at each school -- of a total of about 600 -- participate, says Alice Haskins, middle school coordinator for county schools.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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