Starting in January, uniformed, armed police officers will be stationed in seven of Anne Arundel County's most troubled middle schools, following a national trend of bringing law enforcement from the streets into the hallways.
An $875,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice will pay for the officers to spend the next three years not simply upholding the law on campus, but aiding in counseling, mentoring and teaching at the schools. This is the first time the county's schools will have full-time officers on staff.
"Police work, by its very nature, has a negative connotation with the general public," said Capt. Roger Sheets, who oversees officers who serve in Baltimore County's 24 high schools. "You get traffic tickets. You get arrested. We want kids to know cops are good people."
Schools, once seen as the safest place for students to be from early morning until the bell rings in the afternoon, have had their images tarnished over the past several years. Highly publicized school shootings in Colorado, Kentucky and Florida have struck fear into parents and students alike.
The local officers aren't exactly a response to the escalating threats but a key to preventing violence, officials said. Some schools hold more than 1,000 students - little cities. It makes sense, experts say, for the little cities to be policed.
"People say, `Isn't it a shame we need police officers now? Isn't it amazing our schools are becoming jails?' That's really not the concern at all," said Curtis S. Lavarello, executive director of the Florida-based National Association of School Resource Officers. "Why would we leave any section of the community unpatrolled, regardless of how safe it could be? The potential for crime, the potential for violence, is there."
The seven Anne Arundel schools - Annapolis, Bates, Corkran, MacArthur, Marley and Meade middle schools and the Learning Center, an alternative program for middle-schoolers - will each receive one veteran Anne Arundel County police officer who asked to work with adolescents.
The officers will be trained in the culture of schools, in how to best interact with pupils, in how to be a part of the school team. The schools were chosen because many of their pupils come from low-income families or families that move often, which statistically have been found to be more troubled.
"These officers ... are not arresting kids who misbehave in school," said Huntley J. Cross, special assistant for alternative schools.
In Baltimore County, where a pilot program was expanded this year to all high schools, officers may teach lessons on alcohol, Sheets said. Or the officer may talk about the Constitution and rights of search and seizure, he said.
When a crime is committed on campus, the police officer is closer than a 911 call.
"Sometimes you are going to need some law enforcement support sometime during the school year," said Reginald Farrare, principal at Annapolis Middle.
Though the officer won't start until January, Farrare said he has been working to allay concerns parents or their children might have about bringing armed officers to Annapolis Middle.
Lavarello, scheduled to speak at a training seminar in Baltimore today, traced the first school resource officers to Michigan in the 1950s. Lavarello said his organization, which has a fraction of the school police officers in North America, has 5,000 members, an increase of 50 percent in two years.
Baltimore City schools have their own police force. Baltimore County's Sheets said most large counties in Maryland, including Howard, have officers in at least some schools.
Having officers on campus has had an unanticipated benefit - more crimes are being solved with the help of student informants, Sheets said.
Before, undercover cadets often helped make 10 to 12 arrests in schools a year. Now, he said, narcotics arrests on campus have "jumped significantly."
"The kids come to the cop and say, `I'm tired of Johnny Jones bringing crack cocaine into the lunchroom everyday,'" he said. "Kids are coming to the officers. That's positive."
Said George J. Gibmeyer Jr., manager of Anne Arundel County Police Department's grants unit: "We're kind of excited about the idea. It's something I think the schools are glad to see."