Specialists Look for Ways to Slow A Major US Threat - Youth Crime

AS United States policymakers examine ways to stem the nation's crime rate, their biggest challenge is the growing numbers of American youths who begin criminal activity that is likely to escalate as they enter adulthood.

The statistics are staggering: From 1985 to 1991, the number of juveniles arrested for violent crimes rose by 50 percent, according to a state-by-state study released last week by the Connecticut-based Casey Foundation. The foundation culled the latest compete data available from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, US Census, and other government sources.

The most frequent victims of guns in 1993 were teenagers between 16 and 19 years old, according to the US Justice Department. Criminologists say that phenomenon will continue. An FBI report issued yesterday said that the nation's murder rate was up 3 percent last year.

``The crime rate moves as the teenage population ebbs and flows,'' says security expert Francis D'Addario, who saw a high rate of youth crime while working for Long John Silver's restaurants, for the Southland Corporation's 7-Eleven convenience stores, and now as he heads the loss-prevention department for Hardees Food Systems, Inc.

``We're living in the good old days,'' Mr. D'Addario says. ``Look at the demographics: By the year 2005, there will be an explosion in the population of teenagers living in poverty and prone to criminality.''

At the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup, a medium-maximum prison halfway between Baltimore and Washington, ``the vast majority of [the more than 1,100] inmates have been involved with authorities before the adult age of 18,'' says Warden Eugene Nuth.

``Their problems began a long time ago,'' he says. ``They have school records [of misbehavior], juvenile [criminal] records. Many of them have experienced bureaucracy from the age of six and earlier.''

``We do have files on these fellows from when they were young. There is no evidence that shows they were involved in organized recreation,'' such as team sports or Boy Scouts. They missed out on an important lesson from organized athletics: playing by the rules. ``They never felt the thrill of legitimate victory, or sharing,'' the warden says.

EDUCATORS stress the need to preempt criminal development by steering youth away from it. But many school administrators are forced to devote time and money to crisis management.

Twenty-six incidents involving guns found at Maryland's Prince Georges County schools this year have led School Superintendent Edward Felegy to authorize the use of hand-held metal detectors to check the inflow of students. Many schools across the country, already outfitted with camera monitors and staffed with security guards, are putting their own airport-style metal detectors in place to catch the students who carry guns, knives, and other weapons to class.

School budgets pour dollars into removing graffiti and repairing damage from student vandals. Ann Arbor, Mich.-based security consultant Jerry Wright recalls a antiyouth-crime program in St. Paul, Minn., that worked particularly well. As part of a graffiti reduction plan, schools encouraged students to use peer pressure on their students. ``The pressure worked, improved student self-esteem,'' Mr. Wright says, and ``the savings generated [from the reduction in clean-up costs] were poured into special programs and activities that the school could not earlier afford.''

For his part, Mr. Felegy has also beefed up the number of school counselors who work on conflict resolution, mediation strategies, calming the fears of students. ``Security issues are not simple. We have to intervene at the attitude and feelings level. We need to work proactively with communities, to involve the parents, to teach students respect for self and respect for others.'' Constructive messages must reach children in elementary school, he says.

D'Addario and others are pushing for such guidance to begin much earlier. They are encouraged by the Clinton administration's support to fully fund early childhood education programs such as Head Start, which are designed to inculcate ``at risk'' youth with strong values.

Federal backing for Head Start, D'Addario says, ``is great news for us, because today's five-year-olds are the teenagers of the 2005 future.''

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