More school probation officers OK'd

Number with offices on campus to supervise offenders to grow to 70

Focus is increasing safety

Formal announcement expected tomorrow

list of schools in works

April 27, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Maryland officials have agreed to double the number of probation officers supervising juvenile offenders in high schools next fall, expanding on a fledgling program aimed at helping troubled students and improving school safety.

"We are focusing attention on kids who are most likely to get into trouble, so we have the ability to detect early warning signs and help keep schools safe," said Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Townsend is expected to make the official announcement tomorrow at a school safety meeting in Annapolis.

With an extra $750,000 approved by the General Assembly and the governor, the "Spotlight on Schools" program will put 70 probation officers in schools in 1999-2000, with those officers working with students at up to 160 schools statewide.

The officers monitor students on probation and try to help keep others from getting into trouble with the law. School attendance is a standard requirement of probation -- something that is easier to enforce when probation officers are assigned to high school campuses.

"I think it is a way of identifying students who may need support and guidance and who may already have run into difficulties," said state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"This assures the community that safety concerns for all of the students will be addressed, which is especially important in light of what happened in Colorado," said Grasmick.

This year, 35 probation officers have offices in 46 schools and work with students at 80 schools, said Harry W. Langmead, the Department of Juvenile Justice's assistant secretary for field services.

Many work not just in high schools, but reach into area elementary and middle schools to help the siblings of high school students in trouble.

"We don't ignore the brothers and sisters," Langmead said. "We want to help the whole family."

The list of schools that will be added to the program is being negotiated and is not expected to be completed until tomorrow's announcement.

Metro area schools expected to join the program include Liberty High School and South Carroll High School in Carroll County, Atholton High School and the Gateway School in Howard County, and Lake Clifton and Northwestern high schools and Fallstaff Middle School in Baltimore.

Six Baltimore County high schools also are expected to receive probation officers, in addition to the two county alternative schools in the program. The county had sought to add eight high schools, said Dale Rauenzahn, director of student services.

Announcement of the program's expansion will be made during tomorrow's first formal meeting of the Safe Schools Interagency Committee, which includes representatives of the Cabinet Council on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The committee meeting was planned long before last week's Colorado school shootings. The agenda will include a national overview of school safety issues and a profile of the "classroom avenger" by James P. McGee, director of psychology and forensic services at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital and chief psychologist of the Baltimore County Police Department.

"We have been very focused on school safety for a long time," Townsend said.

In 1995, Townsend helped push for legislation that required police departments to inform school systems when students were arrested for violent offenses or weapons violations.

"It is important for principals to know who are the kids that are most apt to get into trouble," Townsend said. "The probation officers have meant that if a child gets in trouble, there is someone there who has the stick to make sure they behave and also the resources to help them improve their behavior."

Next year's state budget includes $1.1 million to expand after-school programs and $200,000 to expand a character education initiative to help parents teach children civic virtues.

Putting probation officers in high schools began as a pilot program in 1995 at Oxon Hill High School in Prince George's County.

The suspension of students involved in the pilot program declined 36 percent, and none of the students was arrested for new offenses. A similar program in Fresno, Calif., also helped bring about significant improvements in school safety.

After seeing those results, Maryland expanded the pilot into a statewide program last fall.

The initial results from the 1998-1999 school year aren't expected until December, but most schools with probation officers this school year are reacting positively to the program.

At Wilde Lake High School in Columbia -- the first Howard County high school to join the program -- the officer has improved the supervision of the 17 students at the school who are on probation.

"The officer has been a valuable resource to our school because there is someone in here who is watching out for these students and helping them succeed," said Wilde Lake Principal Roger Plunkett.

During this school year, 54 principals and superintendents wrote letters seeking probation officers before any announcement had been made that the program would expand, Langmead said.

In Baltimore County, probation officers will be assigned to both alternative schools, which serve students with behavioral problems, and some of the high schools that feed students into the alternative schools.

"The students assigned to alternative schools don't stay there for very long, so now they will have a probation officer at the alternative schools and one when they return to their high schools," Rauenzahn said. "We think this will help students when they go back."

Pub Date: 4/27/99

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