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Curfew for teens has some adult critics

Despite figures showing fewer juvenile arrests since the measure was approved two years ago, some argue it infringes on parental rights.

In the two years since city commissioners approved a teen curfew, Police Department officials and some residents present statistics and share anecdotes that they say show the ordinance has worked.

Felony arrests of young people have dropped significantly. Many agree that they see fewer teenagers hanging out late at night.

Despite the successes, many residents are adamant in their opposition to the curfew.

Even as an appeals court reinstated Pinellas Park's juvenile curfew Wednesday, some Largo residents believe their curfew is wrong. They say it infringes not only on the rights of teenagers but on the rights of parents who should bear the responsibility of teaching their children the difference between right and wrong.

"To me, it's still not settled," said City Commissioner Mary Laurance, who teaches at Seminole High School and was one of two commissioners to vote against extending the curfew four months ago. "I still think it's a parent's right to have authority over children. I think it's sad to have government have authority over the rights of parents."

After spirited and sometimes heated debate, Largo commissioners approved the curfew in February 1998. The effort came in response to rising juvenile arrests, petty vandalism and other violations by some young people.

The curfew, modeled after the one in Pinellas Park, states that no one under 18 can be on the streets without adult supervision between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. on school nights or midnight and 6 a.m. on weekends. In January, city commissioners voted 5-2 to extend the curfew to February 2003.

For many of those with concerns about the curfew, the issue amounts to government intruding on the lives of its taxpayers.

Seat belts, motorcycle helmets, curfews, gun control. What's next? they ask.

"I just don't think it's right," said Jack Schwind, 47, who manages a Circle K convenience store on Belcher Road and has had his battles with teenagers who come there late at night without adult supervision. "When you take control from the parents and give it to the law, you are dealing with someone else's interpretation of what's right and wrong."

Even some of the seven officers who work in the Youth Services division, the people who drive through the dark trailer parks, by movie theaters and other teen hangouts at night in search of curfew breakers, question whether there should be a curfew, said Largo police Sgt. Andy Hill.

But the numbers suggest the curfew has made an impact.

The number of Largo youths arrested last year on felony charges dropped 33 percent, compared to figures for 1998, according to Police Department data. In the first three months of this year, 44 curfew warnings or violation notices were handed out, the figures show. For the same time period in 1999, Largo police gave out 140 warnings or violation notices.

Hill said the curfew isn't the sole reason for the trend. He believes efforts such as officers picking up truants during the day and working with the youths to determine why they are cutting class have had just as much impact. Those efforts, he noted, were made in response to the concerns of Laurance and other commissioners who wanted the officers to do more than just pick up kids hanging out at 2 a.m.

Hill does believe that by picking up curfew breakers, officers are taking kids off the streets who could get hurt in a car accident or a violent act.

"They're not victims," he said of the youths. "They're not committing crimes. There are a lot of positives."

Although some youths do not know the specifics of the curfew, they are as aware of the ordinance as of the latest clothing fad.

Ashleah Wurdeman knows not to hang out too late at night anymore. The 17-year-old said she had been busted three times for violating the curfew. On each occasion, she said she was on her block, talking to friends. On the first offense, the police walked her home. The second time, her mother was called. The third time, she was fingerprinted by police and the officers followed her home.

Wurdeman said she has not broken the curfew in 18 months.

"I'm always in at curfew now," Wurdeman said Friday as she waited for a friend outside Largo High School.

Before the curfew, Largo High teachers complained that a significant portion of their students were coming late to school. Some teachers believe a good number of those tardy students were hanging out late and could not get up early the next morning. But since the curfew was imposed, along with stronger school rules against lateness, principal Barbara Thornton said, the problem has decreased.

"I think it's a good thing," said Thornton. "I think young people need parameters."

But some educators question the merits of a curfew.

Susan Johnson, 48, a substitute teacher at Seminole High, believes teenagers who hang out at night are just one part of what she perceives as an erosion of basic moral values that has continued since her own childhood. Creating ordinances such as a curfew takes a bit of everyone's freedom, she said.

Johnson, who thanked Laurance for speaking out against the curfew from the City Commission dais, likens the debate to passionate arguments over gun control.

"We've always had guns," she said. "We didn't go into the schools and shoot and kill people because we were taught it was wrong."

Barbara Smith understands such sentiments. But she also does not want graffiti on the walls of her neighborhood. A member of the Westwood Village Neighborhood Association, the 62-year-old Smith watched children roam her neighborhood. "We haven't had that problem anymore," she said.

But she also feels the curfew hurts the teenagers who are working after-school jobs at fast-food restaurants, or kids who go to a 9 p.m. movie on a Friday night and want to get something to eat afterward.

"I can understand both sides of the picture," she said.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.