PALMETTO — County Commissioner Gwen Brown set the tone for a community forum Tuesday in which residents aired their concerns with law enforcement and court and school officials.
Brown opened the forum by telling more than two dozen middle and high schoolers present about a picture she saw of the Manatee County jail at a recent county commission meeting.
“I want to show you how unluxurious it is,” she said to the kids. “It is not a picnic.”
From there, residents aired their concerns with officials, including Manatee County Sheriff’s Col. Chuck Hagaman; Bradenton Police Deputy Chief William Tokajer; and local judges Gilbert Smith, Doug Henderson, Mark Singer, Diana Moreland, Ed Nicholas and Lee Haworth.
Drug dealing and the crime associated with it served as a major concern for many residents who spoke at a packed Palmetto Youth Center. Rubonia resident Bill Costello spoke of drug dealers selling openly in his community.
“It is time we intimidate them, rather than us being intimidated,” he said.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose district includes parts of Palmetto and Rubonia, told the crowd he supported the community’s fight against drugs.
“There is something we can do. I love this district, and I will fight for you,” he said.
One of the most telling moments in the evening came as Mike McCann, Manatee County School District’s head of dropout prevention and alternative education, asked the many students in the crowd what problems they face.
Recent Palmetto High School graduate 18-year-old Kiari Lee had an impassioned response.
“There has been a lot of talk about drugs, but what I saw walking the halls of my school was a lot pregnant teenagers,” she said.
Lee said the stigma the young girls face led many to drop out of school.
“I want to know what can be done to make these teens feel like they can finish school,” she said.
McCann answered that the school district provides a voluntary alternative education program for pregnant teens, of which more than a dozen students have taken advantage. If a pregnant student wishes to stay in regular classes, a social worker is provided to help guide them, McCann said.
But McCann said the problem of teen pregnancy continues to be a growing problem in Manatee, so much so that a program for pregnant middle school students has begun.
“I am sorry to say that we had to start a middle school program for pregnant students. We have one student who is 14 who is on her second pregnancy,” McCann said to gasps from the crowd.