Part of the school scene

A fast-growing specialty in law enforcement puts about 200 resource officers in most Maryland counties at a time when support for the drug education program DARE is waning

September 13, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

The police officer is in full uniform, with radios strapped to his belt and a handgun in his holster. He stands alert at the entrance to a Baltimore County high school, scanning the faces of the teenagers streaming past.

He spots someone. "Hey, there," he says to a senior girl, his imposing posture melting into an embrace. "Welcome back. You excited about school?"

This is Officer Tony Barr, and this, Parkville High School, is his beat. His job means that he's a part-time teacher, a part-time counselor - and a full-time peace officer.

He belongs to a fast-growing specialty within law enforcement that puts officers - often called school resource officers, or SROs - in school buildings every weekday. This comes at a time when support for DARE, a two-decades-old drug education program taught part-time by police officers, is waning.

The U.S. Justice Department has distributed $711 million in recent years to pay the salaries of full-time officers in schools. There are more than 16,000 across the country, a figure that has at least doubled in the past decade, according to officials at the National Association of School Resource Officers.

About $18 million of the federal money came to Maryland, a state with 200 officers working full time at public schools in all but four of its 23 counties. Every county in the Baltimore region except Carroll has school resource officers; Baltimore County's program has grown from two officers in 1996 to 39 this fall.

Meanwhile, federal and state funding for DARE - short for Drug Abuse Resistance Education - has been slashed, and each year fewer cities and counties nationwide are using the program.

"DARE was sort of an introduction to the idea of having an officer in a school," says Lynn Linde, who is head of the student services and alternative programs branch of the Maryland State Department of Education.

"But they were only there for a finite period of time. When you look at what school resource officers do - they're there all the time. They become part of the community."

Barr's school day begins at 7 a.m., about 45 minutes before first period, and he stays until 3 or 4 p.m., well after the last bell rings.

Throughout the year, he'll give lessons on drugs, violence and any other topic that teachers believe he'd be suited to teach. Administrators will ask him to intervene in student arguments that are in danger of escalating into fistfights.

But he'll spend most of his time patrolling the campus, looking for safety and security problems, such as exterior doors that are propped open. Barr carries two radios. One connects him with school administrators, and one is tuned to police frequencies. He can - and has had to - arrest students. He likes to remind the children that he's an officer 24 hours a day, and that he enforces the law off school grounds.

School resource officers in Baltimore County had more than 3,000 "enforcement actions" last year, according to statistics they keep. Those actions include arrests, juvenile citations and criminal investigations. In past years, Baltimore County school resource officers gathered information from students that helped solve two homicides. This spring, a Howard County officer assigned to Hammond High School used his connections with students to help close a case where objects were being thrown from an overpass at cars on Interstate 95.

The DARE program approaches officers in schools differently.

Those officers, who must be certified DARE instructors, are in a school building for the sole purpose of delivering curriculum. Unless a life is in danger, administrators call for other officers if there is an emergency. The DARE officers also typically circulate among many schools.

Blaming budget problems and doubts about the program's effectiveness, Anne Arundel County's police chief canceled DARE last year while beefing up the county's school resource officer program. In Howard County, DARE was phased out soon after the school resource officer program began.

Baltimore and Harford counties still use DARE, though both also have full-time school resource officers. Carroll County has DARE but no school resource officers. The Baltimore City school system has its own police force.

Baltimore County police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan says he still believes in DARE and that parents are supportive of it. But he adds: "Can school resource officers replace DARE? There may come a time when we say yes."

The U.S. Department of Education stopped awarding grants for DARE in 2000, saying its curriculum wasproved effective in a scientific study. Many state education departments, including Maryland's, have since followed suit, Linde says.

Fewer than half the counties in Maryland still use DARE in their public schools, Linde says. Many large cities and counties - including Los Angeles, where the program was founded in 1983 - have dropped DARE.

Claude J. Nelson, DARE America's Maryland coordinator, says he realizes that the school resource officer concept is "the new thing."

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