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Focus on prevention will work, experts say

More money will help, of course, but understanding is needed just as much, some say.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 18, 2000

Luanne Panacek describes the best classroom she has visited: It was a jungle. Walls and desks were covered with plants, animals, birds, all made by students.

Getting a class of severely emotionally disturbed children to transform their classroom was a tricky, challenging job -- which is why they did it four times a year.

"This is what kids need. They need to be engaged," said Panacek, executive director of the Hillsborough Children's Board and a specialist in special education.

Panacek is a strong critic of the "real idiotic, knee-jerk response" she believes schools and police display by arresting young children who don't intend to hurt anyone.

So what would she do?

Find ways to prevent kids from being so disruptive that they wind up in handcuffs.

It sounds easier said than done, but several experts on children say there are ways to accomplish it. Here are some of their suggestions:

Provide more mental health treatment for children. Funding for some mental services is so low that children are virtually required to commit crimes before they qualify for certain programs, some say. "In general, the solution to decreasing the arrests of school-aged children is to provide a much better funded, more comprehensive mental health service to the community," said Dr. Mark Cavitt, medical director of psychiatry at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Fight violence with anti-violence. Examples include "Peacemakers," a program that helps preschoolers in Pinellas County learn that "hands are for helping, not for hurting."

"If we can figure out how to teach children at that age to express their needs with their words, and with positive actions and not violent actions, we may be planting a seed that affects them through their life," says Linda Osmundson of the Center Against Spouse Abuse, one of the partners in the program.

Build communities. The Juvenile Welfare Board has set up neighborhood centers in Pinellas County that give parents a way to meet parents who can provide support, and to find information about various local social services. These services can be as basic as youth sports and Cub Scouts. "All of these kinds of socializing programs arm a youngster and reinforce the family's ability" to deal with problems, said James Mills, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board.

Find troubled kids early -- and then give their families some help by helping them get into family counseling, after-school care, tutoring and other programs tailored to the family's needs.

To catch up early with kids statistically likely to become habitual offenders, the state Department of Juvenile Justice has embarked on a plan to give intensive supervision to select first-time offenders. But Secretary William Bankhead is quick to say that "ultimately, it is real hard for government to fix every problem."

Jack Levine, president of the Tallahassee-based Center for Florida's Children, said Florida should be working harder to fix some.

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