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Truancy, crime programs may expand in new year

Kerry Lane and sheriff's Major Al Perotti Jr. have a lot in common: They both work for the county in a crime hot spot near the University of South Florida, and they both deal in prevention.

Lane, a social worker who heads Hillsborough County's Weed and Seed truancy program, tries to make sure her clients stay in school and don't end up on the wrong side of Perotti or his staff.

Both were successful in 1998 and both are looking forward to enhancing their programs this year.

"We're getting more confident in the partnership with the community," Perotti said. "They call us and work with us more effectively than ever before."

Crime is down in the area covered by the sheriff's district I office, and so is the number of kids skipping school. Perotti attributes some of his department's success to community policing. He hopes this year he can expand that program even more and perhaps add more neighborhood substations.

"If I can get the funding approved, I would like to open up a community substation in Lutz and in Forest Hills," he said.

The Sheriff's Office has not found office space in Lutz yet, Perotti said.

"I'd like to have something right on (State Road) 41."

This will also be the year when a new Hillsborough County crisis center opens at Florida and Bearss avenues. When that happens, Perotti hopes to open a substation there.

"It will be staffed by a full-time civilian employee and the community resource deputies would base out of there, as well," he said. "The folks that live in those communities would have better access to the Sheriff's Office."

The Sheriff's Office established District I on March 1996, and it quickly became a force in this low-income and largely transient community.

Lane's truancy program also has grown in recent years to a staff of nine. She is thrilled to have seen a drop in truancy this past year for the schools targeted by Weed and Seed.

"We were definitely a factor, but the schools are actively doing things" such as sponsoring attendance incentive programs, she said.

The program, which began with federal grants and last year received a $500,000 subsidy from the state Department of Juvenile Justice, plans to expand to cover not just elementary schools, but middle and high schools, as well.

"That's a different population," Lane said. There, unexcused absenteeism is due more to an unruly student than a parent's influence, such as moving.

She and her staff plan to offer counseling services and intervention programs that teach life skills such as problem solving, conflict resolution and vocational education.

"We have to ask, what can we offer them?" Lane said. "That's where I see social workers heading."

They also plan to target schools outside the original Weed and Seed area near USF, if the funding allows.

"Right now, the numbers are so impressive, it looks like (state Rep.) Victor Crist (R-Temple Terrace) will be able to get another year," Lane said.

The truancy program also has been helped by a school district policy implemented last year. "This year, every parent is called every time there is an unexcused absence, all over the county," she said. "So the county is putting a new emphasis on attendance." Several schools sent home magnets with the number to their school's separate "absent line," Lane said.

"The whole thing is getting the school and the parents to communicate about attendance. As long as you are talking to the school about your child, you don't need us coming to your home."

Still, it's hard getting the two to make that connection in an area where many parents don't have a phone or a car.

"A lot of the kids get shipped out to Hunter's Green or Clark, and they have no idea where that school is," Lane said. "Many don't know their kid's teachers' names."

Playing hookie

Truancy figures at elementary schools comparing fall of 1997 to fall of 1998 (from beginning of school to Nov. 30)

School 6-day absences 15-day absences

Mort -36% -23%

Shaw -65% -82%

Belle Whitter -69% -79%

The crime scene

Part One Oct. '96 Oct. '97 Increase /

Crimes Sept. '97 Sept. '98 Decrease

Homicide/ 5 5 0.00%

Attempted homicide

Rape/ 90 76 -18.42%

Sex offense

Robbery 327 255 -28.24%

Burglary 537 534 -0.56%

Vehicle theft 960 914 -5.03%

Theft 3,965 3,982 0.43%

Aggravated 537 555 3.24%

assault

Source: Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office

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