During a visit to Westminster High School yesterday, Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. asked a group of Carroll County teen-agers a simple question: What's going on in your lives?
Curran heard what he has heard from other teens across Maryland. They're busy, tired, bored, concerned about tobacco, alcohol, drugs and violence in schools, and they would like a place to hang out with their peers.
"We need places where we don't have to deal with authority figures," said Brendan Reed, a Westminster High senior. "If you want to get kids off the streets, you have to do something kids want to do."
Carroll County was Curran's 11th stop - he has 13 to go - on his Youth Listening Tour of the state, which will provide the impetus for policy initiatives dealing with youth, he said.
The hourlong event at Westminster High School drew county and education officials, business and community leaders and 22 students from middle and high schools, all participating in a forum to help youth.
"We want to hear about the problems children face today and their solutions," Curran said. "Kids are saying they want more of these sessions where they can get things off their chests."
Many in the adult audience, which included counselors, attorneys and law enforcement officials, wondered why teen-agers were tired. Students elaborated on schedules that often begin at 5:30 a.m., include long bus rides to school, after-class activities, part-time jobs and homework sometimes until 11 p.m.
Those hours seemed to leave little time for the free time Curran asked about. Still, he learned that hanging out at malls, if kids can get there, occupies the spare time of many.
"You can't go anywhere unless your parents are home or you can walk," said Kaitlyn Brewer, an eighth-grader at West Middle School.
Despite costly efforts to prevent youth from smoking, Curran said he is discouraged to learn that tobacco use is on the increase.
"By the end of the lunch mods here, you can't breathe in the bathrooms," Brendan said.
Anna Zawacki, an East Middle School eighth-grader, offered a solution.
"A celebrity [spokesman] would make all the difference," Anna said. "Everybody knows Britney Spears likes Pepsi, but who is talking about no smoking?"
Many students told Curran that they frequently hear friends talking about drug use. "Drugs are not in one place. They are everywhere," said Matt Wolf, an East Middle eighth-grader.
Sarah Stambaugh, a senior at Francis Scott Key High, said, "A lot of people here need help with drug treatment and they don't have the money to get it."
The comments were fairly typical of what Curran has heard so far, he said. But he has talked to the most vocal teens and those who are involved in many activities.
"The patterns are similar," Curran said. "We need to find out more from those kids who are not active, who feel left out."
Westminster High junior Brett Deane said holding the forum in the school's media center with a few students was the ideal setting.
"This was the perfect size, much better than a big assembly," said Brett. "We got to meet with important people from the community and to express ourselves. It was great seeing all these guys here asking us questions."
Charles I. Ecker, interim superintendent of Carroll County schools, said he appreciated Curran's visit.
"He started something that we should continue," Ecker said. "This will stimulate conversation between government and kids."
Naomi Lowenthal, director of recreation in Taneytown, has planned several events for teen-agers that were poorly attended.
"We are not reaching youth because we are not doing the things that they want," Lowenthal said. "This forum was a wonderful idea. We got kids from all different avenues."