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Groups team up to aid troubled kids

When superintendent David Hickey and Sheriff Jeff Dawsy stood before the School Board on Tuesday to announce an idea for something new to help troubled children, they made their pitch from experience.

School officials get a sense early on, through a student's attitude and behavior, which children are going to be problems later. Dawsy's staff often learns their identities later, when they get in their first rounds of legal troubles as teens.

But the schools and the Sheriff's Office aren't the only agencies identifying youngsters with problems. Hickey and Dawsy told the School Board they want to gather other agencies, public and private, so they can compare notes and find solutions before these troubled youngsters become troubled adults.

The two agencies already have started to form the Citrus County Safe Schools Interagency Team, which had its first meeting last week. Since that session, various people, including School Board members at Tuesday's meeting, have suggested even more people who should be a part of the information-sharing effort.

Just what the team will do is not yet clear, the officials said. But Hickey explained that the goal is to prevent problems, intervene when a child is already on a dangerous course and manage any serious incidents that do happen.

The key, he said, is fostering good communications among the various players.

As an example, Hickey noted that research has shown that hundreds of people had the inkling of a problem before the deadly shooting spree by two Columbine High School students in Colorado. Yet those people didn't communicate the information to someone who could help.

Hickey said he was excited about the possibilities in drawing all the groups together.

"We can make a difference," Dawsy agreed.

Even though Hickey and Dawsy have more than half a century of combined experience working with community and schools, each said he was not sure of how many other agencies were also part of the picture and what each one is responsible for. Answering that question will be high on the priority list for the new Interagency Team.

But once that is known, Dawsy said, the hope is to create a system in which students of interest can be identified and then each agency coming in contact with those youngsters can help one another to help the child.

In practical application, Dawsy said, the team needs to create some system so that if one of his deputies goes on a call where he finds a youngster in a bad circumstance, he can communicate that to the school or other agencies that might be able to help once they have the information.

The idea grew out of a conference attended by Dawsy, Hickey and others in Alexandria, Va. Dawsy said he knows that more can be done to stop serious problems down the road. He said that 70 percent of the teens who land in trouble with the law come from homes where there is abuse and neglect.

"We need to do a better job down at the elementary level," Dawsy told the board.

Team members so far include representatives from a wide variety of agencies, including the courts, the state attorney, mental health agencies, the Department of Children and Families, Mad Dads and the Inverness City Council, not to mention the school system and Sheriff's Office.

The team's efforts will be added to initiatives already under way between the school district and the Sheriff's Office: expansion of the School Resource Officer program into the county's elementary schools, and plans to increase use of educational programs such as Child Lures and Cyber Safety.

Also planned: a summer training program that school resource officers and the district's assistant principals will attend.

_ Barbara Behrendt can be reached at 564-3621 or