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MANATEE -- They are just 17 and 18 and already have multiple items between them on their juvenile records.
They also appear to be a part of a disturbing trend in Manatee County -- teens who decide that sitting in a high school classroom pursuing a diploma is not for them, which school officials say is creating a domino effect.
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Bradenton’s Markel D. Love, 18, was arrested and charged with armed robbery after police say he and three other suspects hit King Buffet Restaurant in Palmetto at 9:50 p.m. Wednesday.
Bradenton’s Troy Hodo, 17, whom police say was with Love at King Buffet, would also have a felony on his juvenile record if convicted. He is considered a juvenile by law until age 18.
“Both of these young men have prior records that contain juvenile stuff,” said sheriff’s spokesman Dave Bristow.
“He certainly has a permanent record started now,” Palmetto Police Lt. Scott Tyler said of Love. “This will show an arrest for armed robbery and whatever traffic charges the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office decides to add.”
The other King Buffet suspects are still at large, according to police.
Police also said Love and Hodo are suspects in a string of 11 other armed robberies in Manatee since March 23.
The Manatee County School District is not allowed to say if Hodo and Love are school dropouts.
But the issue of dropouts is so serious right now in Manatee that Mike McCann, supervisor of truancy and drop-out prevention for the school district, sent out a strong message Friday.
McCann knows both Hodo and Love.
“This is a story of two young men, who, hopefully, had they been in school that day ... would have had more options than the one they have chosen,” McCann said.
Two years ago, the county had 10 students younger than 18 who dropped out of school and could not be encouraged to return, McCann said.
Last year, according to McCann, 135 students younger than 18 dropped out and could not be retrieved.
“Manatee County was one of the best in the state. Now we are drifting to the middle or end for number of dropouts,” McCann said.
McCann has had 1,500 court appearances on truancy this year alone, he said.
A truant is defined as a student who misses 15 or more days of school without an excuse.
The main reasons why Manatee kids are dropping out include economic pressures at home and increased academic pressure, McCann said.
“Because of the length of time some parents have been out of work, it’s hard for some kids who see their friends wearing hundred-dollar sneakers,” McCann said. “Sometimes the temptation is too strong.”
There are also higher expectations to learn more in today’s six county high schools and some students might not be capable of handling it and just decide to drop out rather than keep plugging away, McCann said.
“Dropping out of school is a big contributor to crime,” McCann said. “Without their diploma or an equivalent, kids are out there competing for jobs and it becomes even more difficult for students to break into employment.”
McCann believes the answer is for teens to stay in school at all costs. The school district offers myriad programs now that can help students uncomfortable in a traditional school setting.
“I have programs in the afternoons and nights,” said McCann, who is also supervisor of alternative programs.
“I have programs at satellite locations. I have a non- traditional high school. I even have computer pro- grams online. We will do anything we can to avoid a child not attending school.”
Although Love and Hodo were not available to be interviewed, Tyler said their cases could be similar to other teenagers they deal with who have gone down this same path.
“It could be many things that lead to this, and I don’t know either young man’s histories so I am speaking in general,” Tyler said
. “Sometimes teenagers get involved with substance abuse. Sometimes they get caught up in a gang life- style, where the people around them are glorify- ing criminal behavior. Sometimes the financial conditions in their homes drives them to crime. Sometimes it just is a lack of parents who are involved with them.”
Tyler believes the latter is perhaps a key to the others.
“I believe that, rich or poor, a parent who has early and consistent involvement with a kid is doing something very effective in keeping them from straying,” Tyler said. “Kids make mistakes, but when they have a support group from a strong family, or the Boys and Girls Club or something like that, it is critical to helping them get back on track.”
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.