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Citrus Springs tackles rash of youth trouble // THE PROBLEM

Poised on a ledge outside the Lutheran church, Jimmy Dutton tightly rolls a church bulletin that hails activities for children.

Laughing, the 11-year-old loads a berry in the tube to blow the small pellets at a wall. Then, he's off and running with a friend around the back of the church. Easily, the pair scales the fence, hooting the whole time.

Harmless, yes. But Jimmy did this minutes after parents met with children in Citrus Springs to talk about how they can better entertain themselves and stay out of trouble.

"I'd like to be playing football or something like that," Jimmy says sheepishly. "We really don't like getting into trouble. We do it to be fun. You egg houses and you have something to do. Cops have caught us and told us not to do it again or we'll go to jail."

By his own admission, Jimmy is bored most days. He is not alone. Teenagers and younger children alike complain that there is nothing to do in Citrus Springs, a community with a significant retiree population that gradually is becoming younger.

Lately, attention has focused on the younger set in the sprawling subdivision. Some retirees have charged that ill-behaved children are responsible for a recent spurt of vandalism.

According to statistics from the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, vandalism reports have jumped 55 percent since mid-October 1994. Last year, between Jan. 1 and Oct. 16, 40 incidents were reported. For the same time frame in 1995, Citrus Springs residents called deputies 62 times.

That doesn't mean juveniles are pouring out of houses in droves to throw rocks at windows and steal street signs.

About 13,000 students are enrolled in Citrus County schools. Of those, the Department of Juvenile Justice deals with about 700 juveniles a year in about 1,200 cases. The caseload has remained fairly steady for the past couple of years.

About 80 percent of the first-time offenders don't get into trouble again, said Darvin Graham, an administrator in the Department of Juvenile Justice.

"What you hear about are the 700 kids who get in trouble," he said. "You've got 12,000 who their parents are doing something right. You can't say a kid's in trouble so the parent's the problem. That's not always the case."

So the focus returns to area children, who wander around the neighborhood, often after dark, because they feel there is nothing else to do. Despite good intentions, many of them aren't interested in community-sponsored activities.

"All we want is a place we can go and hang out," said Mike Pisciotta, 14. "We want to be teenagers. Like an arcade _ everyone would be there. All this stuff they're doing is for little kids. Why do we want to hang out with little kids? Little kids are annoying."

But that's not their only complaint.

When you talk to the teenagers in Citrus Springs, the ones pegged as the troublemakers, you hear a tale of kids who feel like area law enforcement officials harass them. Part of it, they say, is that they dress like hoodlums: with hoop earrings, baggy shorts and baseball caps that cover their eyes.

"Me and two of my friends were wrestling in the front yard and someone called the police and said it was a gang fight," Jimmy said. "The cops come to your house and then rumors get started."

The fact is, many don't think it's cool to hang out in a church gymnasium, even though they know they can. They want to be outside, stay up late and be teenagers. That means they don't want to be under the watchful eye of parents.

But teenagers also are sick of being pinned as hardened criminals when students from other towns and younger kids are often to blame. Sure, some have stolen candy bars and cursed at adults.

Is that criminal? Maybe to some of the retirees who moved to Citrus Springs for peace and quiet. But really, teenagers _ at the whims of raging hormones _ have always acted stupidly and grown out of it, parents say.

"I understand they'd rather go off in a car to Crystal River and pick up their girlfriends and not be hassled," said Marie Pisciotta, Mike's mother. "I didn't want to do arts and crafts. I wanted to go smoke my cigarettes and drive around with my friends. Come and catch me: That's how we were."

Pisciotta concedes that her son and his friends are no angels. All of them have been picked up by deputies before. But that's not always because they've done wrong _ sometimes they cover for their friends.

"These kids are stuck between a rock and a hard place," she said. "Do they tell the cops or do they lie and get locked up?"

So, the answer to students in Citrus Springs is to find a place for them to hang out. To simply go. They know a mall is out of the questions, but they want a place to play pool and listen to music where deputies can't bug them for loitering.

Parents, who met with teenagers last weekend, tried to encourage them to organize car washes to raise money for pool tables or other equipment. That could dispel retirees' notions that children want everything handed to them.

"One of the gripes is that kids are not willing to work for what they want," said Kristin Stewart, a youth leader at North Oak Baptist Church. "What they (retirees) don't like is the attitude, the thought that these kids are always out on their own."

The students' wish list was long, but much of what they asked for is already in place, save a shopping mall, an arcade, a pool hall and organized sports teams.

"Why would we want to do arts and crafts?" Mike asked. "Make an ashtray and bring it home to mom? And basketball's boring. You get all tired and sweaty."

Marie Pisciotta is one of the parents in charge of a holiday social coming up in the next few weeks. Sometimes, she is at her wits' end to figure out what to do with her son and his friends.

"We know you guys want to hang out, but you can't be hanging out on the street seven days a week and leaning against a truck," she said.

She plans to look into using empty retail space at a local shopping center for a community center. Then, maybe, teenagers would have a safe place to go. And having that space set aside for them might provide the incentive for them to raise money to buy a pool table of their own.

"Our kids are going to have to pull other kids in," said Assistant State Attorney Conrad Juergensmeyer. "I guarantee that if you get an activity that kids are excited about, they'll come out."