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Who's minding young students? Pupils unsupervised after school hours a growing concern

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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 "latchkey" 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, there are only two full-scale, after-school programs -- serving a total of about 60 students -- 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, empty parking lots for skateboarding or 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 mushrooming, police say.

National data show that most crime committed by youngsters happens just after school lets out and declines through the evening hours, says Sgt. Rick Maltz, head of the juvenile division for 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 would likely involve sports, computers, tutorials and field trips, he 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 would 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.

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, and 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.

Home alone

Jimmy and Mike, two 12-year-old seventh-graders at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City have no after-school care -- and don't want any.

The two boys take a school bus home each day and use keys to let themselves in at home.

They say they are unsupervised for about three hours each afternoon until their parents return from work.

"None of the kids I know at school get picked up" by their parents, says Mike, who goes roller blading with Jimmy just about every afternoon. "Some walk home, and pretty much everyone else takes the bus and goes home alone."

Jimmy and Mike, whose last names are not being used to conceal their identities, are considered unusual because they zTC like to spend time after school outside.

Experts say many children on their own after school spend their time watching TV, playing video games and surfing the Internet. Some parents force their latchkey children to stay safely behind locked doors.

Lack of supervision

Local and state agencies do not keep data on latchkey children, but nationally at least 5 million of about 19 million 10- to 15-year-old children are unsupervised for a dozen or more hours each week, says Avery Russell of Carnegie Corp. in New York City. The institute studies social issues, including the care and education of children.

Anti-social messages

Such children -- unsupervised during the long, restless hours after school -- often get into trouble because they don't get the guidance they need, says psychologist Dollie Wood, who counsels children through the Baltimore Department of Health.

Instead, he says, they too often get anti-social messages from their peers and the media.

Problems that develop in middle school -- a pivotal age in which many young adults develop lifelong attitudes -- can escalate, Wood says.

According to a Carnegie Corp. report, students who regularly care for themselves 11 or more hours per week after school are twice as likely to abuse alcohol, tobacco and marijuana as those who have full-time supervision.

"I have overheard older kids, eighth-graders, talking about after-school beer parties and sex and the whole range of things," says Raymond Spriggs, director of the Clarksville after-school program. "These are not things these kids should be thinking about -- but they do."

At the East Columbia library, which has posted signs prohibiting loud behavior and music, many middle school students, left to their own devices, do little but horse around.

Discipline

One recent afternoon, students bounced a basketball among the bookshelves, shot spitwads across cubicles and did much more loud whispering and giggling than homework.

In an hour, a librarian in the children's section disciplined one group of boys three times.

"From time to time, it's a problem," said Joyce DeMitts, associate director at the library. "Just in terms of sheer numbers, it's hard."

"We are addressing these behaviors."

Last month, one East Columbia librarian, fed up with this sort of baby sitting, asked the Owen Brown Village Board to start an after-school program for middle schoolers.

Village officials turned her down, saying they had no money for it.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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