They flutter in like bright winter birds, three girls in colorful down coats. They sign in and move to the homework table -- no prodding from adults needed -- and slide comfortably into the controlled chaos of youngsters doing schoolwork, playing pool and shooting hoops.
It's a scene repeated every day after school as dozens of children fill the Lansdowne Police Athletic League center, one of seven PAL/Rec centers in Baltimore County serving 4,000 children ages 7 to 17 each year who might otherwise drift onto the street.
"It keeps you out of trouble," says Chadwick Erich, an 11-year-old spending his afternoon at one of the center's several computers.
PAL centers, which began in New York in the 1930s and spread across the nation, provide a gently structured alternative with adult supervision -- and they may help lower crime by and against youth.
"Keeping the child occupied in the critical hours before a parent gets home -- they're less likely to commit crimes or become a victim of crime," said Baltimore County Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan.
In Lansdowne, juvenile crime has historically been a problem but has fallen since the PAL center opened in November 1997. Juvenile arrests declined by a third in the first half of 1998, police say, compared to the first half of 1997. Equally important, the number of children hurt by crime declined by 36 percent for the same period, police figures show.
The drop is believed to be the result not only of the PAL center, but also increased patrols along business corridors and a project that deals directly with truants.
"When you put all these programs together, you get something that works," Sheridan said.
What the PAL centers in Lansdowne and elsewhere provide, say police and county employees who work there, is a haven for children who might not be reached by other school or county activities between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. -- the time most juvenile crime occurs.
"These kids are not at high risk -- but their age group is at high risk," says Officer W. A. Rubie, who is assigned full time to the Lansdowne PAL center, a former library. It is, he says, an active way to prevent juvenile crime.
"It keeps them off the street, it keeps them from getting bored," he says as he tosses a stray pool ball back onto a table where three boys are engaged in a fiercely competitive game. "When a child gets bored, he gets into trouble."
Boredom was nowhere in sight on a recent afternoon at the Lansdowne PAL center. Four boys huddled in a counselor's office, planning a "Gentleman's Night Out" that would include movies, games and an overnight stay at the center with breakfast included. Watching the planning was "Coach" John Luckey, a county employee who works at the center.
"It's something coach John and I put together so the boys can have fun," said teen-ager Maurice Coley as he printed the rules of the evening on a piece of paper. "We're going skating and rent some movies and play games."
Along with games and movies, daily Homework Clubs are tucked into the PAL agenda. In addition, counseling is provided for children who need it -- "We do a lot of anger management here," says Rubie -- and gentle enforcement of the rules, which encourage PAL children to treat others with courtesy.
In addition to the PAL center in Lansdowne, the county operates six others in Scotts Branch, Hillendale, Cockeysville, Fullerton, Riverwood and Dundalk. Each PAL center has a police officer, a Recreation and Parks coordinator and assistant, and a substance abuse counselor. With salaries and programming funds, the operating cost for a center is about $93,500 a year.
"The long-term plan now is putting the PAL centers where they're needed in whatever neighborhoods need them," said Capt. Ron Schwartz, commander of the Youth and Community Resources Section of the police department.
County officials have asked the state for money to help establish two others -- a free-standing one to replace the one operating in the Scotts Branch Elementary School, and a new one in Winfield.
"We want to make kids aware there's more to life than hanging out on the street corner," Sheridan said.
Pub Date: 1/18/99