Pubdate: Sun, 06 Aug 2006
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2006 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Cleve R. Wootson Jr.


Pencils that the 14- and 15-year-old students use to practice cursive
are less than 3 inches long. Any longer, and they could be weapons.

The teens wear gray and black shower shoes and green, loose-fitting
uniforms that say "Juvenile Mecklenburg County" on the back.

Here, in mobile classrooms bordered by barbed-wire fences, counselors
and administrators at Gatling Juvenile Detention Center see evidence
of troubling patterns emerging countywide, reflected in the youths
detained in the building's 30 cells.


. The percentage of 12- and 13-year-olds in Gatling, the county's
primary detention facility for boys under 16, is increasing. In 2004,
13-year-olds made up about 7.7 percent of the center's population.
That percentage has nearly doubled so far this year, to 14.7 percent.

. On average, about six of every 10 boys admitted to that facility
have drug or alcohol abuse problems.

. In 2001, girls made up 12 percent of juveniles detained by
Mecklenburg County. In 2005, they made up 27 percent. Of 13 girls held
by Mecklenburg last week, five were charged with assault, including
one accused of using a deadly weapon. One was charged with robbery
with a dangerous weapon.

In the first six months of 2006, juvenile violent crime arrests jumped
25 percent compared with the same period last year, according to
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.

The uptick comes after a few years of decline in Charlotte-Mecklenburg
and other parts of the state.

The increase in violent-youth arrests has caught the attention of
politicians and community leaders who are looking for ways to decrease
the numbers.

Male offenders under 16 are sent just north of Charlotte to Gatling
Juvenile Detention facility. Administrators and counselors there don't
profess to be experts on juvenile crime trends, but, in entrance
interviews with incarcerated youngsters, they say they see patterns --
drug use, lack of education and uninvolved parents -- in the violent
offenders they house and counsel.

Feeling Guilty

The only sound is the friction of pencils on paper.The students are
silent as they sit in gray, nearly weightless lawn chairs that can't
double as blunt objects. Six computers idle nearby. Math books, which
will be used after the warm-up, wait on a black bookshelf.

A staff member monitors the classroom, her walkie-talkie occasionally
squawking quietly.

When asked what type of violent offenders the Gatling facility had
housed recently, Detention Administrator Robert Dixon said "all of the

But here, in classrooms bordered by fences, thwarting violence is not
the biggest challenge. It's educating students, many of whom are below
grade level.

"They have an inferiority complex toward academics," said teaching
assistant Harold Clawson, a retired elementary school principal.
"They're insecure in themselves." Clawson said he and the other
teachers find themselves teaching life skills along with algebra and
geometry -- skills they hope will help their students succeed in
school, get jobs, and stay out of Gatling.

"We help them learn cursive," Clawson said. "Many can't even sign
their name."

After class, many of the students will spend part of their day with
Johnny Burris, in group or individual sessions. Last week, 90 percent
of students had some type of substance abuse problem.

Burris said many of the kids he treats "do things they feel guilty
about. And then they might use drugs to get rid of that guilt."

Difficult to Solve

Even for a well-intentioned community, decreasing violent juvenile
crime can be a nearly impossible task, experts say.

That's because a child's family has the most impact on him, especially
in the early years, said Bruce Arrigo, a professor of crime law and
society at UNC Charlotte. If those family bonds are not there, "kids
will internalize their problems and find coping strategies" that could
lead to crime.

Dixon said that's what he sees in entrance interviews with the
juvenile offenders he oversees.

"I don't want to put blame on any one particular group, but we find
that they're just not supervised well at home," he said. "For most,
it's a single-parent home. The mother has to work. Most of the things
that are going on are happening after school hours. ... Supervision
has a lot to do with it."

At Gatling, 65 percent of the juveniles admitted in July 2006 had just
a mother at home. Close to 30 percent had a parent who had been arrested.

Charlotte City Councilman Warren Turner acknowledges the impact the
family plays on keeping juveniles off the street. Still, he said, the
community has to band together to do something about juvenile violent

He said he's working with community and faith leaders to find
solutions. They expect to present plans to reduce youth crime in September.

"I think we have to focus on the things that truly escalate these
issues -- educating our kids, finding an alternative to teenage
pregnancy, finding an alternative to teenage dropouts, finding an
alternative to teen parenting, finding an alternative to teens'
participation in gang activity," Turner said. "If we don't, we're
going to find ourselves in a worse situation than ever."


60% of juvenile offenders at Gatling detention center with substance
abuse problems

40% of juvenile offenders at the Gatling center with a
history of mental health problems

56% the number of juveniles who
returned to Gatling after being arrested a second time
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake