Among brushes with law, opportunities for learning

Carroll County: Students' checkered pasts create special challenges for the Gateway alternative campus.

October 06, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

One kid asked why teen-agers can't hang out together without getting "harassed" by police.

Another asked about the constitutionally protected right to free speech through blasting music from a car stereo.

Trevor Groomes, an 18-year-old who said he has spent the past four years in and out of juvenile lockups, had a somewhat more specific question.

"If you do smoke and you're underage or whatever, and you got two different packs of cigarettes but one pack has PCP and embalming fluid on it, can you even tell the difference?" Groomes asked.

"You asking me whether a dog can tell the difference?" responded Larry Faries, a retired state police barracks commander, during an exchange about drug-sniffing canines. "Oh, yes it can. Absolutely. A dog's not going to alert on tobacco. A dog's going to alert on PCP and embalming fluid every time."

The former trooper has spoken to hundreds of kids in dozens of classes in the five years since he became security chief for the Carroll County public schools. No matter the occasion, Faries said, teen-agers zero in on two subjects: when police can get into their cars and what officers have to do to be able to look through their stuff.

The students he encountered on a recent Thursday morning at Carroll County's Gateway School, however, were "a little different clientele," as he put it. Although their experiences with police include a liberal sprinkling of the traffic stops and speeding tickets typical for students their age, the alternative school students' questions for Faries sometimes reflected an additional layer of familiarity with law enforcement.

At Gateway

Just outside Westminster, Gateway is the county's school for middle and high school students facing long-term suspensions or struggling with learning disabilities or behavioral and emotional problems. Housed for years in rented office space, the school opened in August in a brand-new $5.4 million building.

Gateway shares many of the same characteristics of a traditional secondary school -- kids break off into cliques, most any field trip is preferred to a day in the classroom, and gossip is shouted among friends during class changes.

Differences are subtle.

The Gateway School, students say, is short on nerds and jocks and has many more variations of the tough-guy groups. Field trips include visits to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where presentations on drug overdoses and highway crashes prove less shocking to them than they do to typical suburban classes. And hallway chitchat -- including talk of court dates and probation officers -- is crammed into a mere minute in a schedule that deliberately leaves students as little idle time as possible.

Knowing that many struggling students learn better through interactive projects, educators at Gateway try to schedule as many guest speakers as possible. But Faries' visit was not planned until an unexpected debate erupted during the first week of school in one of Dottie Piper's seminars for upperclassmen.

On a morning set aside for reading about and discussing current events, Piper tried to steer her class toward a magazine article about America's role as a superpower. The students, however, were seven pages behind her, stuck on an article titled "Brenton Butler didn't do it," about juveniles' vulnerability to making false confessions.

Police interaction

When Piper asked how many of them had not had any interaction with police, not a single hand went up. A rousing discussion -- punctuated with profanities -- ensued.

Ryan Manning, 17, declared his disdain for police, saying: "All cops are [expletive]. I have never met a cop who was nice."

Craig Hardsock shot down a theory that officers will respond more respectfully to teen-agers who are respectful of them. "That's what everybody thinks," he said. "But then they screw you over. Then you start screaming at them. Then they arrest you."

As the class wound down, the students accepted Piper's offer to invite to their seminar a veteran trooper now in charge of security for the school system.

Faries spent more than 28 years with the Maryland State Police -- including 18 years on the SWAT team and a stint as commander of the Westminster barracks -- before retiring in 1998.

The straight-talking former trooper is intense. He's loud. And with a thick neck and crew cut, he still has the look of the wrestler and catcher he was more than three decades ago at what was then Towson State College, where he earned an education degree in 1968.

In Piper's classroom, he slipped into an odd vocabulary of law enforcement jargon and teen-age slang. Asking about their cars, he inquired whether the kids had "nice rides." He asked whether one girl's mother had gotten "popped for DWI." He told them their teacher said they had "been bitchin' a lot about the MSP and the Sheriff's Department."

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