Center for at-risk girls is in danger of closing

Pace Center student Kayla Ramos gets help from her adviser and English teacher Noni Jones on Friday. The school for at-risk girls is in danger for closing after Gov. Jeb Bush proposed cutting $10 million from the budget that was used to keep the 19 statewide locations open.

(ROB C. WITZEL/The Gainesville Sun)
Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 1:13 a.m.



  • In the past decade, the number of girls arrested in Florida increased 67 percent, compared to a 25 percent increase among boys.
  • The number of girls arrested for violent felonies has more than doubled in the past eight years, from 1,400 in 1990-91 to 3,143 in 1998-99.
    - Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency

  • A program that helps troubled teenage girls in Alachua County get back in school and avoid the criminal system could be facing elimination under Gov. Jeb Bush's proposed budget.
    In his budget released this week, Bush recommended cutting $10 million that goes into operating the 19 locations of the Pace Centers for Girls, run by the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
    Bush said the cuts are needed to soften the blow of funding Amendment 9, a referendum passed by the voters in November requiring smaller class sizes.
    State Juvenile Justice Secretary Bill Bankhead, during a conference call, didn't express opposition to the cuts aimed at preventions services, such as the Pace Centers.
    "We had to look at the programs which provided protection for the public versus those that serve the most high-risk juvenile offenders," Bankhead said. "The first ones we have to look at are those who have broken the law and are sentenced to juvenile treatment."
    The cut in funding for the Gainesville location at 1010 SE 4th Ave. would be devastating.
    The center serves up to 35 girls ages 12 to 18 at any given time on $400,000 from DJJ and $200,000 from the Department of Education.
    Five years ago this week, the center began offering classes and services to troubled girls, some of whom have had brushes with the law, have had problems at home or were failing in school. The participants stay an average of a year with the goal of being returned to their previous middle or high schools when they complete the program.
    Five teachers and two counselors work with students on everything from their school course work, respecting someone else's opinion to changing a tire. Most of the girls have not entered the criminal or juvenile justice system, but show significant risk factors for doing so, such as failing in school and behavior problems.
    "I just hope they realize the ramifications on the nitty-gritty, down-to-earth, one-on-one interaction that (the girls) need," said Pace teacher Noni Jones, who has worked at the center four years. "If not for the special attention we can give them here, they fall through the cracks."
    The shift away from prevention services for female juveniles is particularly troubling for the center's director, Kathie Southwick, who recounted DJJ's own statistics that show in the past decade, the number of girls arrested in Florida increased 67 percent, compared to a 25 percent increase among boys.
    "If you see the whole picture of their lives, you can be a lot more patient," said Southwick, who added that it costs $13,000 a year to serve a girl at the center compared to $43,000 to jail someone in Florida. "Basically, our most important role is to be role models. I firmly believe that if one person believes in you, which many of these girls have never had, it can change your life."
    Making strides According to DJJ, of the nearly 5,000 females served during 2001-02 at the centers, 91 percent improved academically, 94 percent had not committed a crime one year following enrollment, 67 percent fewer used drugs and 81 percent fewer exhibited runaway behaviors.
    On Friday, students remained as upset as teachers about what could happen.
    "If this place ever shut down, it would probably be the biggest heartache for most of the girls here," said 16-year-old Roberta Noronha, who recently returned to Buchholz High School to continue her studies. "I don't know what a lot of girls would do without Pace. Public schools just don't have the compassion that is offered here.
    "A lot of girls would end up dropping out, going to the streets and messing up their lives, where at Pace, we have a future."
    For now, officials said they are holding their breath and awaiting the decision of lawmakers, who begin meeting in March to iron out a final budget in May.
    Cathi Carr can be reached at 374-5086 or carrc@

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