The trouble seekers

Probation officers: Their presence in public schools is helping to head off potential offenders.

May 06, 1999

DOUBLING THE number of juvenile probation officers in Maryland public schools next year won't solve all school security problems, but it will bolster a state program that has been a demonstrated success since a pilot began in Prince George's County in 1996.

This year, 37 probation officers from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice were assigned to cover 80 schools throughout the state. Another 35 officers are budgeted for the 1999-2000 school year.

School administrators welcome the idea, not just because it provides more adult supervision but because officers can spot and head off potential offenders before violence erupts. The officer can also counsel problem children and advise principals on the law. With the consent of parents, an officer can place a disruptive child on informal probation and file legal charges if necessary.

School officials report reduced pupil absenteeism and suspensions, fewer students referred to the juvenile justice system, little recidivism and fewer serious discipline problems.

Fights at Columbia's Wilde Lake High broke out twice a week before a probation officer arrived last year. Now there's no more than a couple per semester. An outburst of hate-crime activity in Westminster High last year was also addressed by the officer before it escalated; the culprits were punished and there was no recurrence.

Some school systems were wary of the program, fearing it would tag them as hotbeds of delinquency. But resistance quickly faded. Initially skeptical Montgomery County now aims to have an officer in every high school.

The program is part of the long-term Safe Schools Strategy. It was not prompted by the high school slayings in Colorado, but Maryland's success with school probation officers is sure to get a close look at Monday's White House summit on school safety.

Pub Date: 5/06/99

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