His duty is to guard and guide

September 13, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes

When Cpl. Ricky D. Lee has to arrest a student, he usually makes one thing clear: "It's nothing personal."

Lee, a Howard County school resource officer, has handled all sorts of issues with teenagers over the five years he has patrolled the halls of Hammond High School in Columbia. A towering 47-year-old man who served four years in the Army, Lee finds himself playing other informal roles with the school's 1,300 students in addition to that of law enforcement officer.

"I'm a mentor, a social worker, a counselor," said Lee, who often greets students with handshakes and a smile. "I spend a lot time putting out fires. You tend to find that what happens out in the community comes back to school the next day."

In Howard County, the school resource officer beat can be fraught with pressure and complications. The officers are regularly in the public eye whenever a significant incident occurs because of the laser-like scrutiny that parents, politicians and the news media focus on the county's highly rated schools.

The actions of one officer were put under the microscope last year at Glenelg High School, when he arrested a disobedient student. The student filed an excessive force complaint with the Howard County Police Department, but the officer was ultimately exonerated by an internal investigation, a police spokeswoman said.

"It takes a special person" to be a school resource officer, said Sgt. William F. Walsh, head of the Police Department's SRO unit, which stations officers in each of Howard's 11 high schools and at Homewood School, an alternative education center. "We're attuned to the intense scrutiny. In fact, we'd be foolish not to be."

Officers are trained to work with administrators to find the best solution to handling teens with problems - and that doesn't always mean placing someone under arrest. It might mean recommendations for counseling or phone calls and meetings with parents.

"They are, in many ways, behind-the-scenes people even though they do a lot of things and are highly visible," said Roger L. Plunkett, assistant superintendent for school administration. "The SROs know where the hot spots are in our schools, to keep our schools free of drugs and other issues."

But the officers are mainly at high school campuses to thwart threats to students, faculty and administrators. They have their own offices and frequently roam the halls and the grounds outside the school, looking for everything from students who smoke illegally, to unlocked exterior doors, to the trespasser who might be looking to sell drugs or pick fights with students.

Hammond Principal Sylvia Pattillo said she couldn't imagine running a school without a school resource officer.

"We work as a team," Pattillo said. "Often we follow his directive in terms of the law. [Lee] is very, very good in talking to kids and getting information from them. They most likely talk to him more than their parents. They share a lot with him."

School resource officers are also encouraged to participate in the school community in other ways, developing bonds with students when off-duty.

Lee, for instance, also coaches the Hammond boys' varsity basketball team. Walsh, his supervisor, said that other SROs teach dance or weight-lifting in their respective schools.

But Lee has also done serious police work. He was involved in resolving two high-profile incidents in the past school year. In October, the mother of a student found a note detailing plans among five students to buy and sell an unloaded handgun. She reported the information to Lee, and the students were arrested and expelled.

Lee also developed information that led to the arrests of three students who threw objects at cars along a four-mile stretch of Interstate 95, in some cases smashing windshields. In some of the incidents, he said, the students threw objects out of their bus window as it drove over an I-95 overpass on the way to school.

The acts instilled fear in the motorists who drove along the busy highway for about two weeks. The Maryland State Police launched dragnets - with a helicopter and K-9 team - to try to catch the perpetrators, but came up empty-handed.

Lee said the state police eventually asked him to put "feelers" out to students to try to develop leads. The break in the case came in a subtle way: One of the students who was committing the acts asked a teacher about the legal consequences for the perpetrators if they were caught.

The teacher became concerned and told Lee about the student's hypothetical questions. He interviewed the student and "it just snowballed from there," Lee said.

But Lee insists, with genuine pride, that the students at Hammond are "a great group of kids."

His greatest satisfaction? Watching students graduate after overcoming a shaky beginning in high school.

"It's good to see where a student starts at ... and work with them and watch them walk across that stage," Lee said. "I call them `my kids.'"

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