DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - When the police got a tip that Bonner Elementary was being hit for the second time in a week, they rushed three squad cars to the school. As they were cordoning off the grounds, the burglars emerged - dashing out a front door and across a field.

Norm Kenaiou, a veteran cop, caught one burglar struggling to hop a chain-link fence. The shock came when he spun his suspect around and saw two, doelike eyes blinking back at him: the eyes of a terrified 8-year-old girl.

Should he read the child her Miranda rights? Handcuff her? Kenaiou couldn't bring himself to do that. Instead, as he later described it, "I took her hand and, just as a father would lead a child, walked her back to my patrol car."

That another 8-year-old, a 9-year-old, two 12-year-olds and a 14-year-old were also arrested for the New Year's Day break-in was just as troubling. "It was a real gut punch," Kenaiou says.

In this working-class tourist mecca, a party town best known for motor racing and spring-break frivolity, crime has never been an outsider. Today, Daytona's crime rate is more than double Florida's and the nation's, having jumped 13 percent in 2006 alone, according to the most recent state figures available.

But what especially unsettles law enforcement here is that juveniles - some as young as 7 - are being arrested for a larger share of the city's felonies.

Mike Chitwood flagged the problem two years ago, soon after taking over as Daytona's police chief. To Chitwood, formerly a police lieutenant in Philadelphia, it wasn't just that poorer neighborhoods were being pounded by burglaries, or that cars were vanishing from dealership lots, or even that assaults and sex offenses were up.

The crimes were happening under the noon sun - and not far from the city's schools. Initially, Chitwood ordered truancy sweeps. Then, he had his officers fingerprint kids caught skipping school. After running the prints through the FBI's national database he saw his suspicions confirmed: Kids were behind the spike.

It didn't take long for the police to link rings of teens to burglaries, car thefts, carjackings and even armed robberies. "We even had kids taking stolen cars out of stolen-car lots," Chitwood says.

But more arrests do not a victory make, as the chief came to learn.

In a city such as Daytona - where poverty lives among the weeded lots and sagging houses off the palm-lined, neoned strip, behind the triple-bolted doors of tenements in the shadow of the Speedway - teen crime and even preteen crime have proven to be resilient adversaries.

Here and in other cities, chronically high juvenile-crime rates - those ranging above the national average of kids under 15 committing 5 percent of violent crimes, 7 percent of robberies and 9 percent of burglaries - fray the patience of judges and politicians and pop up on newspaper front pages. Each spike in offenses prompts a new round of questions, namely:

What will it take to keep our kids out of the juvenile justice system - for some, just a pipeline to the prison system? More aggressive policing? More social services? Harsher sentences? Or something else?

Would programs to modify the behavior of kids as young as 5 help? Or would taxpayers dismiss that as just more nanny government, especially at a time of economic slowdown, when local and state governments are desperate to cut spending?

Chitwood doesn't hesitate in answering.

"I've got 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-olds committing burglary and stealing cars now. What are they going to be doing when they're 21?" he says. "Hey, either you pay when they go to state or federal prison, or you're going to clean the crap up now. But somewhere along the line you are going to pay." *