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KEEPING TABS ON AT-RISK YOUTHS

A program has school resource officers monitor the students over the summer.

Each time Wiregrass Ranch High School closed its doors for summer, Cpl. William Veral felt like he was losing track of his kids.

During the school year, he makes sure his students are going to class and following the law. Veral is a school resource officer and works out of the school to help teens through probation or any safety issues.

"You can actually make a difference every day interacting with these kids," Veral said. "You get to see results and work through problems with kids and have a happy ending."

But when summer comes, they go home and he can't follow up. Previously, Pasco County's roughly 28 SROs were reassigned to other departments during summer months. They didn't see their students nearly as often.

The new Juvenile Monitoring Program, which started in June, changed that. The program allows five SROs to make home visits to at-risk juveniles and their families, said Lt. James Law, the SRO unit supervisor. Depending on vacation and training, not all five are always working at the same time.

They ensure households are complying with court orders, such as curfews or home detention. Deputies also empower parents by providing another set of eyes and ears. So far, most parents have been happy to see deputies, he said.

"These parents are just looking for any kind of help they can get," said Veral, who originally pitched the idea for the program after reading about a similar St. Petersburg program.

Law said the program can also help reduce crime in specific areas as a part of Sheriff Chris Nocco's Intelligence-led Policing initiative. Deputies can talk to their students and find out about local crimes.

They are a great source of information, Law said.

While students can be helpful, deputies are working to support them and teach them about the repercussions of crime, Veral said.

"It's for the kids," he said. "If he or she has no consequences now, I believe they are more likely to commit crimes later on," he said.

Pasco County worked with the State Attorney's Office and the Department of Juvenile Justice before starting the program. SROs repeatedly check in on about 60 to 75 juveniles during the summer.

In the program's first month, SROs made more than 250 home visits, arrested 11 kids for existing juvenile pick-up orders or violating court-ordered sanctions.

The kids also help with law enforcement. With the teens posing as customers, deputies arrested 13 adults for selling alcohol to minors during alcohol-buy stings at local convenience stores throughout the county.

The number of home visits dropped to 132 in July, as some of the SROs were in training.

The program is meant to prevent juveniles from entering a life of crime.

Though he doesn't like to admit it, Veral said some children are too far gone. Not everyone gets the happy ending.

The SROs hope to keep track of the teens who want to succeed.

"These kids will change. They will mature," Veral said.

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