The kids in the room are there to learn, but reading, writing and mathematics aren't part of the lesson plan.
This is juvenile court in Dade City and they are there to learn their fate. A 17-year-old girl sits crying. She is in the juvenile detention center, faces transfer to adult confinement and can't see her 2-month-old baby.
A kid charged with marijuana possession is put on probation and faces mandatory drug testing. Too bad he wasn't there earlier during adult court to watch a grown man, dressed in cream sickle orange and white stripes with ''inmate'' across the back, hear he will be sentenced to three years in prison and fined $50,000 for drug dealing. It might have made a lasting impression.
Later, a 14-year-old pleads no contest to five counts of criminal mischief. If only it were mischievous like hanging toilet paper in a tree. In this case, it was thousands of dollars worth of vandalism — slashed tires and scratched paint — to parked cars in a middle-of-the-night crime spree. This is the case that has me in court. I'm one of the victims.
We discovered the crime on the rainy morning of Monday, Jan. 17. All eight tires on the two cars were punctured. The damaged paint, where someone ran a sharp object the length of the driver's side doors, went undetected until later in the day. I knew exactly when it had happened. A loud noise had woken us at 2:45 a.m. In total, they destroyed 20 tires on cars outside five homes in our neighborhood.
Within a week, deputies arrested a 14-year-old who lived with his grandparents five houses from us and a 15-year-old from another neighborhood. The 14-year-old pleaded no contest in Pasco court, but is to be sentenced in Hillsborough County where he now lives. The elder teen has yet to face a judge.
During proceedings, the judge asks the kids if they can read or write and if they are under the influence of drugs. A reasonable question from the bench should be directed to the parents and guardians: What are your kids doing out unattended at 2:45 in the morning?
The answer, however, can be detected easily. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There was no school that Monday so the juveniles felt comfortable in sneaking out and misbehaving.
The U.S. Department of Justice can pinpoint two spikes in the time violent juvenile crime occurs: on weekdays in the hours right after school ends and in the evenings on non-school days. When kids are on their own.
You want to keep kids out of trouble? Keep them in school.
But in this era of multimillion-dollar budget cuts, elected school board members in both Pasco and Hernando counties have said they will consider a four-day school week.
In Pasco County, board member Steve Luikart broached the topic two weeks ago amid discussions of a $60 million budget shortfall and a proposed impact fee waiver that will exacerbate funding troubles. In Hernando County, board member James Yant told another newspaper he would be open to a four-day week, too, since all cost-cutting ideas need to be considered when trying to close a $21 million deficit.
The savings from a four-day week account for only about 5 percent of what needs to be identified, mostly in transportation and cafeteria costs, according to Pasco projections.
Cutting the days in school by one-fifth to save one-twentieth of the money needed is a formula that just won't work particularly because it fails to consider societal implications. Idle children create problems. High school kids will do their own thing, grade-schoolers will be left with baby-sitters or day care and middle school kids will be the most problematic — too old to be in day care, but too immature to be on their own.
In the last state fiscal year, more than 121,000 kids were referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice as delinquents including almost 2,400 from Pasco County and 775 in Hernando. Across the state, 85 percent of the juvenile criminal behavior happens outside of schools.
Children who are in class learning or staying after dismissal for sports, band and other extracurricular activities, have fewer opportunities to get into a fight, go into a vacant unlocked house, throw a rock through a window, shoplift or dabble in alcohol, drugs and teen sex.
Giving children an extra day off from school each week should not be entertained as an option in drafting next year's budget. If it is, then lock your doors and windows and keep a light on in the house.
And make way for more defendants in juvenile court.