ST. PETERSBURG — More than a dozen black teenagers told U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist on Wednesday that children need stronger mentors and youth programs to steer clear of the auto theft epidemic plaguing Pinellas County.
"I don't want to sit in a room with someone who's never been in my situation, or is scared to be in my neighborhood," said Angelique Evans, 15. "We need more role models. We need more people who are willing."
HOT WHEELS:Read the revealing series on juvenile car theft in Pinellas
The 14 local youths, who ranged from a fifth-grade student drinking apple juice to a junior college freshman, were invited by Crist to a community roundtable at St. Petersburg College's Midtown campus.
The congressman hoped to learn new ways to reach St. Pete youth who are turning to crime and fueling the county's deadly trend of kids stealing cars. Earlier this month, three boys from Clearwater died when the stolen Ford Explorer they were driving crashed. Last year, three St. Pete girls drowned when the stolen Honda Accord they were driving plunged into a pond.
The problem was the subject of "Hot Wheels," a recent Tampa Bay Times series that found teenagers behind the wheel of stolen cars crashed every four days.
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In 2015, more juveniles were arrested for grand theft auto in Pinellas County than anywhere else in Florida and most places nationwide, including Los Angeles and Baltimore.
The teens at the table with Crist were not these car thieves — but Junior ROTC members, club presidents and magnet students who advised the congressman on what their peers need to help them stop making bad, even deadly, choices.
Deterryon Anderson, a St. Petersburg High School student, said he was friends with Keontae Brown and "close friends" with Dejarae Thomas, two of the boys who died when the speeding Ford Explorer crashed Aug. 6.
TIMELINE:Three boys died in a stolen vehicle: Here's how it unfolded (w/video)
"I felt like something could have been done to prevent that," said Deterryon, who played football with Dejarae when they were younger. "I wish he could have taken a different route."
He credited the school's athletics teams with keeping him on track, and his coaches for serving as role models.
But not everyone has an activity they're engaged with, the teens said, just like many don't have a strong father figure.
"There are programs out there for the good kids with high GPAs and who want to go to college," said Shenya Ruth, 16. But when it comes to teenagers who are not already on the right track, she said, "people are scared in a sense to work with those kids."
Several programs in St. Petersburg do attempt to attract young African-Americans, including "Men in the Making" and "Cohort of Champions," run by local pastors and the city. But getting the kids who could benefit the most from these groups in the room is a challenge, said Angelique.
"These programs that are out there, they're not being advertised in a way that kids are going to want to enjoy them," said the sophomore at Northeast High School.
Crist said he is continuing to look at federal grants and other funding opportunities for local activities.
"Having good programs available to our young people is critical," Crist said afterward, "so we will pursue that with a vengeance."
The most recent story in the Times series focused on Isaiah Battle, a 16-year-old St. Petersburg car thief and the brother of Dominique Battle, one of the girls who died in the pond. Wednesday would have been her 18th birthday. The story detailed Isaiah's effort to stay out of cars, and how he eventually turned back to crime after being unable to find a job.
Crist said the community needs to push businesses to offer jobs to teens — even those with criminal records. "We can encourage companies to help them out," he said.
The roundtable was briefly delayed by supporters of the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, who blame city leaders and the police for the death of Dominique and her friends. They shouted that Crist was manipulating the kids for a press stunt.
The children pushed back against claims they were being used, saying they were honored and proud to be speaking on behalf of their peers.
"To be living in a black community, there's nothing bad about that," said Ukari Register, 16. "We're good people, good music, good food."
Register said he grew up without a consistent father figure, but called his hard-working mother his role model.
"Not having a father figure … that doesn't justify me going out stealing a car, going into a house, robbing somebody," said the Boca Ciega High School junior.
New programs can only work if teens choose to put their faith in them, Register said: "There are enough programs, but it's like, a child has to meet you halfway."
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @zacksampson.