DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When the police got a tip that Bonner Elementary was being hit for the second time in a week, they rushed three squad cars to the school. As they were cordoning off the grounds, the burglars emerged — dashing out a front door and across a field.
Norm Kenaiou, a veteran cop, caught one burglar struggling to hop a chain-link fence. The shock came when he spun his suspect around and saw two, doe-like eyes blinking back at him: the eyes of a terrified, 8-year-old girl.
Should he read the child her Miranda rights? Handcuff her? Kenaiou couldn't bring himself to do that. Instead, as he later described it, "I took her hand and, just as a father would lead a child, walked her back to my patrol car."
That another 8-year-old, a 9-year-old, two 12-year-olds and a 14-year-old were also arrested for the New Year's Day break-in was just as troubling. "It was a real gut punch," Kenaiou says.
In this working-class tourist mecca, a party town best known for motor racing and spring-break frivolity, crime has never been an outsider. Today, Daytona's crime rate is more than double Florida's and the nation's, having jumped 13 percent in 2006 alone, according to the most recent state figures available.
But what especially unsettles law enforcement here is that juveniles — some as young as 7 — are being arrested for a larger share of the city's felonies.
Mike Chitwood flagged the problem two years ago, soon after taking over as Daytona's police chief. It wasn't just that poorer neighborhoods were being pounded by burglaries, or that cars were vanishing from dealership lots, or even that assaults and sex offenses were up.
The crimes were happening under the noon sun — and not far from the city's schools. Initially, Chitwood ordered truancy sweeps. Then he had his officers fingerprint kids caught skipping school. After running the prints through the FBI's national database he saw his suspicions confirmed: Kids were behind the spike.
It didn't take long for the police to link rings of teens to burglaries, car thefts, carjackings and even armed robberies. "We even had kids taking stolen cars out of stolen-car lots," Chitwood says.
But more arrests do not a victory make, as the chief came to learn.
In a city such as Daytona — where poverty lives among the weeded lots and sagging houses off the palm-lined, neoned strip, behind the triple-bolted doors of tenements in the shadow of the Speedway — teen crime and even preteen crime have proven to be resilient adversaries.
Here and in other cities, chronically high juvenile crime rates — those ranging above the national average of kids under 15 committing 5 percent of violent crimes, 7 percent of robberies and 9 percent of burglaries — fray the patience of judges and politicians and pop up on newspaper front pages. Each spike in offenses prompts a new round of questions, namely:
What will it take to keep our kids out of the juvenile justice system — for some, just a pipeline to the prison system? More aggressive policing? More social services? Harsher sentences? Or something else?
Would programs to modify the behavior of kids as young as 5 help? Or would taxpayers dismiss that as just more nanny government, especially at a time of economic slowdown, when local and state governments are desperate to cut spending?
Chitwood doesn't hesitate in answering.
"I've got 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds committing burglary and stealing cars now. What are they going to be doing when they're 21?" he says. "Hey, either you pay when they go to state or federal prison, or you're going to clean the crap up now. But somewhere along the line you are going to pay."
When children commit, or even plan, violent crimes, America takes notice.
Think about the attention paid in April to a school in Waycross, Ga., where a group of third-graders allegedly hatched a plot to knock out, handcuff and stab their teacher with a steakknife.
Recall the outcry a decade or so ago, when a series of horrific murders by kids prompted dire predictions that teen "superpredators" would take over America's streets. Legislators passed get-tough laws, and children were increasingly transferred to adult prisons for serious crimes — a policy that many states are now rethinking, and in some cases, retooling.
But the "rookie" offenses, the ones that start children on the journey to a life of crime, often don't get the attention they should, says Dan Mears, an associate professor at Florida State University's College of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
"There's an at-risk population of kids in our country, particularly those in poverty — 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds — who get no attention from our juvenile justice system. Even in our most progressive states, we wait until a kid has committed a really bad crime ... to do something."
And even then, he adds, "the response is much more focused on being punitive, rather than asking, 'Jeez, what can we do to prevent them from getting enmeshed in juvenile justice?' — which would cost us a lot less money than eventually having to incarcerate them."
Daytona Beach is no New York City, no Chicago; criminologists don't look here for national law enforcement trends. And yet, Daytona suffers from economic and social maladies that plague many American cities with high youth-crime rates, making it fertile ground for a study on how to divert at-risk youths from a life of crime.
— Seventeen percent of Daytona's families live below the poverty line, nearly double the national and state averages of 9 percent. Median household income, $25,439, is not two-thirds of the national average of $41,994, according to U.S. Census data.
— The percentage of single-parent households in Daytona Beach is higher than that of two-parent households. Nationally, there are three times as many two-parent households as single-parent homes, the census notes.
— Fewer than half of Daytona's residents own their homes, far below the average for the rest of Florida, where 70.1 percent are homeowners, census data shows.
And this city has yawning demographic disparities: In Daytona Beach, where a third of the population is African-American and half is white, 8 of 10 children arrested in 2005-06 were black; just 16 percent were white, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
"These poor, minority kids always fall between the cracks," says Jeffrey Butts of Chapin Hall, a child and family research center at the University of Chicago. "Their law violations scare away child welfare agencies, but most times their initial crimes are not serious enough to merit aggressive intervention by the juvenile justice system."
What to do, then, in cities like Daytona?
"We'll never have the tax base and political will to bring outside solutions into every neighborhood," Butts says. "What it takes is creative organizing — to find positive people in each community and to build them into a force for change."
There exists a patchwork of nonprofit groups that endeavor to dent this city's child-crime problem — faith-based, medical, government, among others. And then there are foot soldiers, such as Georgia Williams, who works for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
"Miss Georgia," as the children respectfully call her, is director of the Palmetto facility in 32114, Daytona's poorest ZIP code. Her responsibility: 166 kids, ages about 6 to 12. Her staff: Two.
In physical terms, Williams' workplace is modest: A one-story structure of grafittied brick that a decade ago served as a low-income housing project. This club has no basketball court, no pool, no soccer field, not even a flag for its flagpole — just a faded sign hung crookedly in a barred window: "Safe Place."
What it does have, though, is fundamentally important: rules.
Here, bad behavior isn't tolerated: not fighting, profanity, backtalk, forgetting to brush one's teeth, or fluffing off homework. At 52, Williams is old-school, likes order. "These kids don't come here to get their character developed," she says, "but they wind up getting just that."
Spanking is a no-no, but she has other tools, such as "time outs." Those punished in this way sit alone for 10 minutes or perform clean-up duty. More serious offenders receive two-day suspensions, and do neighborhood cleanup.
Williams' larger purpose is to groom these children for life "on the big stage," starting with lessons in hygiene, and other basics. She and her helpers drill the kids on the importance of a good breakfast, telling the truth, staying in school.
And, adds Kamri Skillings, 11, on the pitfalls of illegal substances. "Cocaine, marijuana, meth — the biggies," she says. Anything else she's been warned to avoid? "Um, diseases that can be spread from kissing and stuff."
This all might seem rudimentary, but it's vital to children who often don't get the basics from a grandparent who's raising them, or a single mother who's working multiple jobs to pay the rent, says Joe Sullivan, who oversees 11 Boys & Girls Clubs in east-central Florida.
"A lot of these latchkey kids need boundaries — how to act, how to behave. They need somebody to pay attention to them," he says.
And yet, he says, only a handful of the poorest families in the surrounding projects send their kids to the Palmetto club. Why?
Williams thinks it's largely cultural: "We do a lot of mentoring here. I like to mold my youngsters, push them to the limit. I think that makes a lot of the parents around here uncomfortable."
Sullivan understands that. Still, he might be able to attract more children from the neighboring projects by adding an outdoor playground. "You need to have things for the bigger kids to do. They won't just sit indoors."
Then, reality sets in: This is going to be a hard year. Private donations have shrunken in the slowing economy; government dollars are getting scarcer. Consequently, the Boys & Girls Club will shutter two facilities in the county, spreading kids among its remaining clubs, Sullivan says.
Gail Hallmon, operations director at The House Next Door, a support agency for troubled families, commiserates. Her organization lost $100,000 last year in funding from the state and county — a 5 percent budget hit. This year, she expects more cutbacks.
"In times like these, all social services are getting cut — and the first things to go are the programs designed to keep kids from becoming criminals. There isn't really any organized attention and funding to help those kids who haven't broken the law yet — only for kids already in the juvenile justice system."
Last year, her group partnered with the local police to try to create a Daytona Beach Truancy Center. The cops would sweep neighborhoods for truants and bring them to the center. (Presently, they are returned to school, but police say the students often walk in the front door and out the back.)
At the Truancy Center, two social workers would interview and assess the children and, together with school counselors, link them and their parents to drug or mental health screening, classes on managing anger and impulses, and the like.
The House Next Door applied for state grants; the Daytona police applied for a grant from the Department of Justice. The idea was to pool resources — about $250,000 — for the center's first year.
Both were rejected.
"It's painful to know," Hallmon says, "that you know what will work to keep kids from becoming criminals, but that you can't get the money to make it work."