Probation officer to aid high school Goal is to reduce disruptive behavior at Wilde Lake High

'Change the atmosphere'

Wilde Lake is first in county to take part in statewide program

September 25, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

A juvenile probation officer has been assigned full-time to Wilde Lake High School, making it the first Howard County school to join a statewide effort to reduce disruptive behavior.

The Columbia school -- which has about 1,400 students -- announced its participation in the "Spotlight in Schools" program at a news conference yesterday, which was attended by Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Dels. Elizabeth Bobo and Frank S. Turner and Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon. Wilde Lake joins 81 schools across Maryland that have the officers stationed in-house.

Probation officer Susan McFadden, who has been working at Wilde Lake since last month, supervises 17 students there who have committed crimes and are on probation. McFadden's duties include checking the students' attendance, monitoring their probation and attending meetings aimed at preventing disruption.

"I primarily make sure that all of my youths are in school," McFadden said. "Thankfully, it's more prevention than punishing. a wonderful program."

Administrators at Columbia's Atholton High School hope it will be the next Howard County school to join the program.

"We feel it would give greater assurance that the students on probation will turn the corner," said Celia V. Carr, assistant principal of Atholton. "We're hoping by being proactive other kids who might be tempted will think twice."

"Spotlight in Schools" began as a pilot in 1996, when the state assigned a probation officer to several schools in the Oxon Hill section of Prince George's County. Those schools reported a significant drop in the number of suspensions last year, and the program was expanded to include 70 schools in May.

One of those schools was Baltimore's troubled Northern High School, which became the first in the region to join the program. Townsend said the effort seems to have had a beneficial effect.

"The reports have been very positive," she said. "We've been able to develop a sense that fewer kids are violating their probation."

Townsend said superintendents statewide were notified about the program, and they identified schools in their districts with the largest numbers of students on probation. Schools apply to the state Department of Juvenile Justice to receive a probation officer.

"We were fortunate that we were able to fund all the schools that made requests," said Marty Burns, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention. "We've had more requests now since the program began. I would anticipate that more funding will be added to the program over the next year or so."

Officials said the presence of a probation officer may discourage youngsters who aren't in trouble with the law from being disruptive in school. It may also make things easier for teachers and administrators as well, Burns said.

"The principals have complained about being intermediaries. This was especially a problem at Northern High," Burns said. "It is a great relationship to have [McFadden] with the teachers and with the administrators so that if there is a problem they have instant access to her."

"In the past, the police had files on kids. The schools had files on kids," said Gilberto de Jesus, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice. "We never shared that information."

Officials acknowledged past problems at Wilde Lake, where students and staff members emphasized safety and nonviolence after the death of biology teacher Lawrence C. Hoyer, who had a heart attack after breaking up a campus fight. Last year, Principal Roger Plunkett dedicated the year to Hoyer, 60, who headed the science department. Students formed a nonviolence group and rules were posted throughout the school.

Townsend noted that fights had diminished at Wilde Lake from a high of about two a week to two a semester.

"There was a problem here a couple of years ago. It was tough," Townsend said. "But I think what Roger did was say 'We can change the atmosphere of the school.'"

Plunkett believes McFadden will have a positive effect on Wilde Lake.

"Students must know that there are consequences for bad behavior," Plunkett said. "It helps them to think."

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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