When there's a fire or burglary at a Harford school, police and firefighters aren't the only ones on the scene. Eventually, Wally Brenton shows up, if he isn't there already.
He's not averse to wading through pools of water in schools soaked by sprinkler systems after a fire or methodically searching a building for clues to a theft.
As the lone school security officer, Wallace C. Brenton oversees problems from vandalism to alarm systems to errant teachers.
His territory covers 3,700 school employees, almost 35,000 students and about 75 buildings, including the 47 schools.
"I'm a one-man operation," says the former Baltimore police detective, who often works 10-hour-plus days.
While he's not exactly television's Detective Columbo, Mr. Brenton, who has been with Harford schools for 15 years, could be a relative, minus the trench coat. Wearing a white shirt and red tie on a recent workday, he's affable and charming -- and tough.
"I haven't lost too many cases," he says. "Good interrogation is my forte."
Whether he's tracking down a student's involvement with stolen computer equipment, investigating a custodial worker suspected of being a drug kingpin or looking into the actions of a teacher accused of robbing banks, he works closely with local law enforcement officers in a liaison program that pools resources.
"It's made my job easier working with him," says state police Detective Michael F. Donhauser Jr. "He has vast experience with criminal work."
Mr. Brenton's law enforcement career began more than 25 years ago in the late '60s as a Baltimore police officer. And if you flip back the calendar to 1976 at Memorial Stadium, you would see Mr. Brenton sitting with his wife, Barbara, and preschool daughter, Carolyn, on the field with then-city Comptroller Hyman Pressman.
The young detective is about to be cited as Baltimore's Policeman of the Year, recognized for making 196 felony arrests in the 12 months.
"I achieved what I wanted to achieve," says the stocky security chief, who is now 47.
Seated in his cramped, but organized, office on Gordon Street in Bel Air, Mr. Brenton reflects on 10 years of long hours and dangerous work on narcotics, vice and tactical squads in the Baltimore Police Department, while also attending the University Baltimore at night to earn his law degree.
"I had had enough," he said, explaining why he left the police force a year after the award.
After a two-year stint with an alarm company, he landed the newly created position of security and safety coordinator of schools in Harford County in 1979 and has become firmly entrenched.
"No one in the county has a more interesting job than I do," says Mr. Brenton, who has lived in Harford since 1972 with his wife of 25 years; Carolyn, now 21 and a student at Virginia Tech; and another daughter, Eileen, 16, who is an honor student at Bel Air High School.
"There's no typical day," Mr. Brenton says.
He can be found in his office, on the road or even out of state tracking down witnesses, he says.
He is hard-pressed to say what he does to relax. "I'm a workaholic," he admits.
But he does find time to enjoy University of Maryland basketball and football games (the 1964 City College grad also avidly follows the annual Thanksgiving rivalry between Poly and his alma mater); occasionally head to Rehoboth Beach, Del., or Cape May, N.J.; and walk his year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, Otis.
'Comes on strong'
It may be difficult for some teachers to picture Mr. Brenton in such casual endeavors.
"He scares them to death," says Jean Thomas, president of the Harford County Education Association, the teacher union.
"He comes on very strong . . . especially to the elementary school teachers who are used to working with young children," ** Ms. Thomas says. She is referring to employees who aren't being investigated but have information that Mr. Brenton may need for a case.
That's her only complaint, though, and one she says she has communicated to Mr. Brenton.
"He really does a superior job in his investigations," she says, adding that he's been helpful whenever she has had to contact him about administrative matters.
The concern that Mr. Brenton of ten hears, mainly from parents, is that he has forced a student to confess.
"I work painstakingly not to coerce a confession," he counters.
"My job is not just law enforcement," Mr. Brenton says. "I'm an advocate for the child and that they learn something from their mistakes."
He is a proponent of the alternative education program, held three nights a week at Bel Air High School for students who have been suspended or expelled.
"I feel good you don't end a kid's life [with suspension or expulsion]," says Mr. Brenton, who admits he's sent a number of students there this school year.
Besides student and teacher investigations, he is also responsible for school safety, and it is an area he thinks needs more attention.
He has compiled an emergency procedure book that covers such topics as floods and early dismissals, but he says more needs to be done. "I can't do it all," he says with a shrug. "I've tried."
His supervisor, Roger C. Niles, assistant superintendent for administrative services for the school system, is well aware that Mr. Brenton could use some assistance.
"In the future, we'd like to have additional help in that department," he says, although there are no immediate plans to expand.
Mr. Niles credits Mr. Brenton's thoroughness and conscientiousness for doing as much as he does with the job.
As if all this isn't enough to keep Mr. Brenton busy, he has decided to go back to school -- this time to get a master's degree in education at the University of Maryland.