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Youths give advice on crime

Here is an idea to end smoking in the boys' room: Spray the offenders with dye.

It was one of several colorful ideas offered by high school students who attended the county's first-ever summit on juvenile justice issues Wednesday.

Many of the 20 students wanted to crack down on troublemakers, but they said the schools and community could do a lot more to help young people stay on the right track.

Like most of the nation, Pasco is facing a surge in juvenile crime and school expulsions. Pasco juveniles committed 3,500 law violations in 1996, a 94 percent increase from 1992.

Until now, the problem has largely been tackled by adults.

Wednesday's event, sponsored by the Pasco Juvenile Justice Council, was an attempt by school and law enforcement officials to find solutions from those closest to the issue: students themselves.

The summit was part of Juvenile Justice Week, which includes events and presentations at several high schools and middle schools throughout Pasco.

The students, representing all of the county's high schools, were quick to seize the opportunity to be heard Wednesday.

Most agreed that out-of-school suspensions are ineffective because "it's just a vacation for most kids," said Timothy Hernandez, 18, a senior at River Ridge High School.

"They'll just sit at home and get drunk, and the crime rate will go up," he said.

The students suggested the schools instead require violators to perform community service, such as sweeping trash.

"Maybe it will deter them," said Krissy Hogan of Hudson High School. "They'll think, "I feel like an idiot.' "

Pasco school officials have been considering alternatives to suspension. The schools assign community service in some cases but do not administer it directly.

The students Wednesday also suggested tougher measures to combat substance abuse.

They proposed more regular sweeps by drug-sniffing police dogs, more hallway monitors, mandatory drug tests for athletes, and random searches of students previously convicted in drug cases.

The courts have deemed random searches illegal without probable cause, noted Lt. Bill Johnson of the Pasco Sheriff's Office.

"It always surprises me that a lot of their (students') solutions are a lot stricter than what we (adults) say," said Stephen Knowles, vice chairman of the Juvenile Justice Council.

The students insisted that smoking at school, which is against the rules, is a big problem. They suggested $25 fines for first-time violators.

"You go into the bathrooms and when you come out, your hair and whole body smell like smoke," said Will Weatherford, 17, a junior at Land O'Lakes High School.

That might stop if the schools installed smoke detectors that would trigger sprinklers filled with dye, someone suggested.

Too many students are getting away with profanity in class, the students also said.

"Kids have no fear, not just about drugs," Weatherford said. "They never think they're going to get caught."

The students generally supported the curfew for teenagers proposed by Sheriff Lee Cannon and approved by the County Commission this month.

However, some said it should begin at 1 a.m. on weekends instead of midnight, as the ordinance reads.

The students also wanted greater positive efforts to encourage delinquents and lawbreakers to act better.

They proposed making classes more interesting and hands-on. High school students should act as mentors for middle school pupils. And, they said, the schools should hold more open houses to get parents interested in what's going on.

With only an hour to brainstorm, the students didn't tackle some of the thorniest problems facing Pasco youths, as outlined at the beginning of the event by Rick Hess of Youth and Family Alternatives.

They included how to handle chronically truant students and runaways who may be escaping abusive parents.

Still, Bill Gandy, juvenile justice manager for Pasco County, praised the students and promised that their suggestions would be taken seriously.

Thanks to recent state legislation, the Pasco Juvenile Justice Council has $400,000 in grant money to spend, and perhaps some of it can fund the students' ideas, Gandy said.

The council has started several prevention and intervention programs since 1994, and council members want to continue focusing on preventing juvenile crime instead of locking up the offenders.

"I heard some things that were doable," Gandy said of Wednesday's event.

"They know what's going on. . . . I couldn't have said it better."