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Elian Case Tough for Kids To Process

April 14, 2000

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Crystal Agnew understands it. After all, what kid would walk away from trips to Disney World, a puppy, a rabbit named Esperanza and, to top it all off, a swimming pool? Not her, she knows.

Still, Crystal, 15, doesn’t really believe 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez has any business deciding whether he should stay in America.

``He’s only a little boy. I don’t think he understands what is going on,″ said Crystal, an eighth-grader at Conniston Community Middle School 90 miles north of Miami. ``It’s like a big playground to him.″

In schools across the country, children Elian’s age and older are just as inundated as the rest of America with the saga unfolding in South Florida. Like adults, they struggle to figure out how one child became a national obsession. And, like adults, they don’t share the same opinions.

``I think he has enough brains to choose if he wants to go back to his dad,″ said Shane Buck, 15, of Plainview, Neb., enjoying a day off from school at the Westroads Mall in Omaha. Of one thing, he’s sure: ``I don’t think it should be a national matter.″

In Boston’s Roxbury section at the Maurice J. Tobin School, 68 percent of students are Hispanic, though none are Cuban. On Friday afternoon, eighth-grader Thomas Brown _ in baggy jeans and striped T-shirt _ said his social-studies class has spent time talking about Elian. Though he didn’t think the boy was old enough for an independent decision, Thomas said he was ambivalent about what should happen.

``It’s confusing for him. He’s got his father telling him one thing, and the rest of the family telling him something else,″ said Thomas, 14. ``If that was me, I wouldn’t want outside persons, or the government, trying to make decisions for me.″

Jennifer Beniquez, 12, another honor-roll student at the Tobin school, agreed. ``Everybody’s in his business,″ the sixth-grader said. ``He’s too little to decide for himself. Everybody’s, like, deciding for him.″

Ten-year-old Erin Finlayson was shopping at a mall in Lubbock, Texas. She said she’s been watching coverage while getting ready for school. ``I think the U.S. would be a lot safer,″ she said. ``Cuba doesn’t have anything for kids.″

At West Palm Beach’s Conniston school, many children, including 13-year-old Albert Pavon, whose parents came to the United States from Cuba in the early 1980s, have strong opinions about the Elian situation. They all agree the boy should be granted citizenship. And the father?

``If he really wants his kid, he should stay here with him,″ said 14-year-old Jessica Rosario. ``He should be glad for his son _ that he is now free from Fidel Castro.″

Jessica has changed her mind since Elian first arrived. At first, like her mother, she believed Elian should be returned to Cuba. No more.

``God had a reason for him to be here,″ said the tall, Hispanic girl. ``His mom died bringing him here. He lived through the two days in the water and stuff. He should be allowed to stay.″

One theme kept coming up: the attention. After 4 1/2 months, many students said they were overwhelmed by the media attention and are ready for a resolution. Thomas Brown, the Boston student, certainly is.

``When we first heard about it, on the front page of newspapers, that’s all you’d see,″ Thomas said. ``After a while, you just don’t care no more.″

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