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[whitespace] Young leaders consider change in law to bring parents in line

Too many teens left without ride home after city events

Saratoga--Saratoga Youth Commissioner Lee Blair, 18, is tired of dealing with irresponsible parents and teenagers.

He says the number of students left waiting for a way home after recent city-sponsored middle school dances has reached serious levels. Lately, it's not uncommon for students to wait for up to 1 1/2 hours after events for parents to retrieve them, according to Blair. He and his fellow youth commissioners, along with Teen Center coordinator Lauren Merriman, are forced to wait deep into the night to resolve these youngsters' situations.

So, last week, Blair did what any good-intentioned public official would do--he proposed a solution to the problem. His solution happens to involve the extension of Saratoga's existing teen curfew.

The current law governing curfew prevents anyone under 18 from staying in a public place or business after 10 p.m. on weekdays and midnight on weekends. A sheriff's deputy can detain minors who breach curfews and issue tickets.

Under Blair's plan, the city would give parents or guardians 30 minutes to gather their under-18 children after the end of all city-sponsored teen events (most end at 10 p.m.). Provided that a parent is on the way after the clock strikes 10:30 p.m., the youth commission would continue to look after the child.

But, if it's apparent that the child is stranded, youth commissioners and city staff would be able to hand the youth over to the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Department.

"Parents who are not willing to take care of their children need some consequences," Blair said, after the May 29 youth commission meeting.

Blair plans to draft a letter to the city council proposing the change that involves adding language to the city code.

Blair's fellow youth commissioners seem lukewarm to the idea of extending the city curfew to cover city events.

At the May 29 meeting, several commissioners were concerned that getting the sheriff's office involved seemed drastic. But none appeared bothered by how a curfew change might play out among peers.

"If my friends knew about this, they'd probably be surprised," said Youth Commission Chairperson James Atkin, 17, a junior at Saratoga High School. "But the more I deal with logistics of dances, the more I see the need for it."

The commission voted overwhelmingly on May 29, to carry the idea--though not the letter--of Blair's proposal forward for consideration at their next meeting in August.

City Councilwoman Ann Waltonsmith, the council liaison to the youth commission, says she'd like commissioners to meet with fellow teens and parents to discuss the issue at a future forum.

There's a consensus that something needs to be done about the stranded teens at the end of dances, for whom the commission is legally responsible.

Atkin says he sometimes sees 15 to 20 students hanging around the Warner Hutton House a half-hour after the monthly Friday night dances. The most serious incident occurred some three months ago when, according to Atkin, five teens tried to walk to their homes in the Westmont area after a dance.

The commission has tried to enforce an identification requirement at dances, in part, to account for who exactly is being left behind after the event. But Merriman says this effort is frustrated by teens who avoid giving their names at all cost.

Commissioners have also called Safe Rides--the group designed to avoid teen drunk driving--to take home stranded teens; but Blair says that's an abuse of Safe Rides and it's not a long-term solution.

The youth leaders have even tried calling the sheriff's office. Deputies, however, don't respond to such calls because, according to Blair, they have no legal grounds and they fear harassment charges.

Blair's proposal would allow the sheriff's office to legally intervene when a parent was nowhere to be found. Children could be released to their parents at the sheriff's substation or at home; parents would face only a warning on their first offense. The sheriff's office could fine the child for transportation and administrative costs after repeated curfew violations.

Saratoga Recreation Supervisor Beverly Tucker, who worked closely with the youth commission until last March, applauds the group in pushing for a solution to the post-dance dilemma.

"I think it's terrific that they're taking the initiative on this," she said.

She believes that in working with city council the commission may settle on a solution similar to the temporary alcohol prohibition the council has granted the commission for its music festivals in Wildwood Park.

Parents might breath a little easier at the suggestion of a more limited rule.

Public Safety Commissioner Brigitte Ballingall, whose 14-year-old son James sits on the youth commission, says many working parents with heavy social schedules should sort out their lackluster child supervision. But she says sometimes parents "just forget" to pick up kids and she'd like to preserve a little leeway in Blair's reforms.

"It's fairly serious for 13- or 14-year-olds to be out past 10 o'clock," said Ballingall. "I just wouldn't want the [changes] to be too punitive.

Referring to the youth commission's consideration of Blair's proposal, Ballingall added, "You'll find sometimes that students get to be this age and they're harder on each other than adults are. James is sometimes harder on me than I am on him." She laughed, slightly.
Oakley Brooks

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