One urban high school in Dade County, Fla., reported a "near zero" crime rate; countywide, school crime dropped 26 percent, and school robberies dropped 47 percent. The main force behind these remarkable statistics was a program called Youth Crime Watch, which in 1984 won the Crime Prevention Coalition's national award.
It is one of many programs springing up across the country that are giving young people a stake in their communities and using the enthusiasm and energy of youth as a resource rather than viewing adolescents as a chronic source of trouble.
The National Crime Prevention Council, a nonprofit agency funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and private foundations, examined dozens of these projects, and the results of the research were recently published in a book, "Making a Difference, Young People in Community Crime Prevention." It is a small volume that makes a powerful argument for involving young people in projects that emphasize service and responsibility.
John A. Calhoun, executive director of the crime prevention council, says he first saw this approach work when he was commissioner of youth services in Massachusetts. "I was struck by the fact of how many kids would admit to committing a crime but have no sense of human connection. They would say, 'Yes, I committed a crime, but the system doesn't understand me.' I thought we should make the connection between the criminal act and the human implications of it. We designed a program for kids who were delinquent so they would give something back either to the victim or, by extension, to the community.
"We had delinquent kids guarding old people while they cashed their Social Security checks, and kids coaching basketball to youngsters, and teaching younger kids, and working at day care centers. We had school vandals cleaning up schools. We had a very low recidivism rate. It's telling kids, 'You're responsible,' but the implicit message is, 'We need you.' That seemed to have the most success with some very tough kids.
"I've come to the conclusion that teens are a colossally neglected resource. We look at them only as the source of the problems . . . . I was struck by the need of teen-agers to serve. Kids are reaching puberty earlier and earlier, yet society says, 'We don't have a place for you until later and later.' So much goes into trying to sit on the energy or bottling it rather than saying, 'Terrific, let's use that energy for something viewed as important by the community.'
"We found programs that were really making a difference: Hispanic kids doing graffiti cleanup, kids in Harlem doing housing rehab. In Indiana, some of the high school leaders go into the fourth through eighth grades and talk about drug and alcohol abuse to younger kids. Many of the school officials say, 'They don't listen to me, but when the stars come in they listen.' The essential message is, 'We need you and you have a stake.' If they don't feel that, they're going to behave like they don't feel that."
In Tampa, Fla., Teens on Patrol puts people 16 to 19 years old on patrol in parks, public swimming pools, recreation centers and retirement centers five hours each weekday during the summers. Money to pay their salaries and run the program was raised by the chamber of commerce and three local foundations. At the Archdale public housing complex in Boston, children from age 6 to the teens patrol the complex and report overflowing dumpsters, broken lights and debris, and the housing authority provides prompt response. In Oneida, N.Y., a Youth Court, staffed entirely by young people, handles cases involving youngsters charged with minor offenses. Sentences can go as high as 50 hours of community service. Teen-agers in other areas are running services for fingerprinting youngsters and for identifying property in case of theft.
Calhoun believes that youngsters between 11 and 13, who think they are too old for child care, could be used as aides in day care centers or other activities for younger children instead of being left alone.
And he is convinced that a program of community service should be woven into high school social studies or civics courses so that "before graduation a teen-ager would be involved in some sort of service."
New York state and Atlanta have already done this. Crime prevention is one way to involve youngsters, because crime affects them too. But the most compelling part of Calhoun's argument is that whatever the program, the implicit message is that youngsters who serve will feel needed and valued. As things stand now, too many of them don't feel that way at all.