High schools get full-time police help Two officers to rotate through the schools to build rapport

Deterrent to crime

Initiative for county considered to be first in the suburbs

April 26, 1996|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Two Howard County police officers have been assigned full time to high schools to combat rising juvenile crime and to build rapport with students, under an initiative formally unveiled yesterday by county, police and school officials.

The plan -- under which two officers will rotate through the county's eight high schools at least one day a week -- appears to make Howard the first suburban school system in the Baltimore area to assign police full time to high schools.

The city has its own school police force.

"This is such an important step in preventing the escalation of juvenile crime and juvenile problems," said Susan Cook, chairwoman of the Howard County school board, in a news conference yesterday afternoon.

She called it a "pro-active response" to Howard's "false sense of security."

Howard Police Chief James N. Robey said the program will help the department fight Howard's youth crime and gang activity by letting police "interact with the students in a nonconfrontational situation."

Serious juvenile crime and school system suspensions for violent behavior have been rising in recent years, school and police officials said.

The number of suspensions for violent behavior rose 34.7 percent from the 1993-1994 school year to the next, although enrollment increased less than 5 percent.

The number of robberies by youths in Howard rose from 19 in 1994 to 25 last year, and the number of aggravated assaults increased from 53 in 1994 to 79.

Chief Robey said the "escalation of not just juvenile crime but serious crime" prompted him to support the program -- an idea proposed by school Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

But Chief Robey and other officials emphasized the situation hasn't gotten out of hand.

"Things are not that bad, but we're going to act and take positive steps before they become that bad," he said. Officers have been visiting the schools informally for years to meet with students and walk through hallways as part of the county's community policing efforts, the chief said, but this initiative makes the program official.

The two officers assigned to the program will serve several functions at the high schools, including role model, mentor and educator. They also will be expected to deter crime and to handle nonemergency police calls -- lessening the demand on patrol cars that regularly respond to the schools.

Chief Robey did not have statistics available yesterday on how often the police respond to calls to the high schools, but he said they are becoming more frequent.

In the two weeks that Officer Mark Richmond has been assigned to Atholton, Hammond, Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake high schools, he has handled several student smoking and pager-possession violations and helped prevent some potential fights.

"We'll often hear about a potential conflict before it gets out of hand, and we're able to talk to the students and defuse the conflict," said Officer Richmond, who had been serving as an informal liaison officer to Wilde Lake High since 1993.

The other officer in the program, Ann Bailey, is a graduate of Wilde Lake High and has a teaching certificate in primary education.

Principals, student leaders, parents and teachers praised the program, saying it can provide a deterrent.

"I think it is a really good idea," said Atholton High School junior Michael Eshoo, 16, the school's representative to the school board.

"You're a little uneasy when you see a police officer walking through the halls, but I think they'll be in the school about as often as they were before the program when they responded to problems."

Marshall Peterson, principal of Oakland Mills High School, said the program "gives some kids a strong alternative to getting into trouble. Having a police officer around removes some of the peer pressure that drives so much of the criminal activity."

Judy Butler, the president of the county's PTA Council, commended school officials for starting a way for police to "build relationships with the students."

But Ms. Butler and Wanda Hurt, chairwoman of the PTA Council's safety committee, said they wanted to be sure the officers have proper training and that the program doesn't escalate into a substantially larger -- and unnecessary -- police presence in schools.

"I don't want it to be the first step toward something like metal detectors. It should be a low-key presence," Ms. Hurt said.

Dr. Hickey, however, said the program will help the school system avoid turning to stronger deterrents.

"Metal detectors shouldn't be needed if the program is the success we expect it to be," he said.

Police in a similar program in Fairfax County, Va., that Howard officers visited say that being in the high schools has helped them fight juvenile crime. Two years ago, Fairfax officers were assigned to all of the county's middle and high schools.

"Some of the benefits are difficult to quantify, but the biggest thing has been the building of relationships between officers and students," said Fairfax police Lt. Phil Lively.

"If they're not building mutual trust, at least they're building mutual respect."

Lieutenant Lively said the program also has helped Fairfax police make more drug arrests and gain insight into crimes that may have been committed by students -- such as vandalism, graffiti or burglaries. "We're able to get out in front of the problems," he said.

Pub Date: 4/26/96

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