Howard officer patrols high school befriending teens

April 22, 1991|By Michael J. Clark | Michael J. Clark,Howard County Bureau of The Sun

When the class bell rings, the students at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia stream past a blue-uniformed policeman on the beat who knows what their life is all about.

"I love this work with kids," said Officer Larry Freer, a 40-year-old native of Manhattan's East Side who is the father of a 16-year-old son. "A lot of things these kids are experiencing, my son goes through."

Officer Freer has been assigned to Oakland Mills for two hours each Wednesday, when he walks the corridors and teaches classes on law enforcement in an effort to improve police relations with teen-agers.

"The point I want to get across is that police are human, too," said Officer Freer, who has spent 15 years on the Howard County Police Department. "For some of these kids, I come across as an older brother."

Building on Officer Freer's experience, police intend to send officers into all the county's eight high schools to patrol the hallways and develop friendly relations with the students and staff.

Last year, the department felt the sting of public criticism about the way it handles young people after several teen-agers were arrested at a party in a Jessup motel. The teen-agers filed charges of brutality, and three officers now face a departmental trial board hearing.

One of the youths arrested, Jon Bowie, was later found hanged, and his apparent suicide resulted in a group of parents in the Oakland Mills village area of Columbia protesting over the handling of the case.

The outcry motivated police to develop ways to improve its relations with teen-agers, and at the start of this school year, Officer Freer began making Oakland Mills part of his beat. Another officer, Kevin Brunette, is working in the high school's weight-lifting and conditioning room.

Officer Freer remembers growing up in Manhattan, where "the cop on your beat was the same cop your whole life."

It was the officer on the beat who patched up his cuts and consoled him after he was banged up in a fight as a fifth-grader.

"He made an impression on me because he took time to make me feel better about myself," said Officer Freer, who also heads the police department's Explorer Post, a contingent of teen-agers who perform a variety of public services.

"No real teen-ager likes cops because they are like a form of authority," said 15-year-old Christopher Killon, an Oakland Mills High student, who is a member of the Explorers. "Officer Freer, though, is a good guy to listen to, and he can be funny."

Kevin Stern, a 17-year-old senior at Oakland Mills High School, realizes it is Officer Freer's goal "to put us on better terms with the police."

"I think it is just fine. He is not here to get anybody in trouble. He is as friendly as can be," Kevin said.

Sue Ann Tabler, the principal of Oakland Mills High, said Officer Freer "has gotten to know the kids, who have opened up to him with their personal problems, and he has been a calming influence in the school."

"I am excited about the possibility of the program being in all the schools next year because I think when relationships are better between the school community and police, society can only benefit," Ms. Tabler said.

Sgt. Bo Haslup, the department's youth supervisor, said he met with principals from all eight high schools to discuss similar programs in their schools. "They jumped at it," said Sergeant Haslup.

"The officers will be on routine patrol and will stop by the schools and walk the grounds and the buildings 10 to 15 minutes each day," said Sergeant Haslup. "We hope to build closer relationships between the police and faculty and students. We would see firsthand any problems in the schools."

In addition, he said some officers will be available to give talks on law-related education topics.

Associate Superintendent James R. McGowan said school officials support having officers work closely with the schools.

"It will show students that officers have a variety of services to offer and provide us with the benefit of their knowledge of criminal law and its implementation," he said.

Using the patrol officers in high schools is the latest of a series of programs in which the county police are working with students.

Four officers are visiting 28 elementary schools, teaching fifth graders about the dangers of drug abuse, as part of Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

Several officers are also participating in basketball programs at two middle schools. Starting next year, officers will be working on special programs designed to avert drug use.

One result of Officer Freer's presence is that "the kids here trust me."

"I even give them my phone number," he said. "They are under a lot of pressure to get good grades, find the right girl or boy and get good SAT scores, so I try to be supportive and help them with their personal problems, like the cop back in Manhattan helped me when I most needed it."

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