More school police unlikely

Funding not available for middle school officers

31 vacancies in department

Program offers security, chance to build rapport

December 13, 2004|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Despite lobbying by the Anne Arundel school superintendent, the county's Police Department is unlikely to assign officers to any county middle schools next fall, county police officials say.

Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan is still developing the department's budget for the next fiscal year, but 31 positions are likely to remain vacant on the force, said police spokesman Sgt. Shawn Urbas. As a result, there are few additional resources to expand the school policing program.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who had met with Shanahan, said he understands the decision and will explore other ways to improve security aside from officers, who are intended to head off problems and build relationships with students.

"I think both the chief and I agree on the need, but it's the ability to fund those things that is a problem," he said. "It was one we were more talking about long term, if we can afford it."

Among Smith's goals for the district is to have 95 percent of students, parents and faculty respond in a survey by 2007 that they feel safe at school and believe students are well-behaved.

For about four years, officers patrolled the halls of six middle schools and one alternative middle school. Last year, they were moved to high schools, which were seen to have a greater need; now all high schools have an officer, said Richard Berzinski, acting supervisor of school security.

Urbas said it costs more than $120,000 a year to put an officer on the street, and about the same amount to assign an officer to a school.

Nationwide, an increasing number of districts have assigned resource officers to the lower grades, said Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. About half of the group's 16,000 members serve in middle schools, he said.

"The earlier we can connect with these young people, the better," Lavarello said.

Reginald T. Farrare, the principal of MacArthur Middle School on Fort Meade and former principal of Annapolis Middle School, said such assignments offer "an opportunity for a positive connection with a police officer because he or she has that opportunity to be with the children and talk with them."

Officers receive training to acclimate them to their schools, Farrare said. They also attend staff meetings. Although officers do not mete out punishments, they sometimes are asked to talk to students about their choices and behavior, he said.

They also build a mutual connection, with young people letting officers know about things that are going on in the community.

"It's a throwback to when police officers used to walk the beat on the street and stop and talk to you as citizens," Berzinski said.

Some officers maintain a presence beyond the school day, taking on duty at school dances, sporting events and other activities - sometimes on a volunteer basis. Others take that responsibility further. Farrare recalls an officer at Annapolis Middle who took some students to religious services and gave others rides home in order to meet their families.

Resource officers can also provide information about what's going on beyond a school's walls, which helps school administrators make decisions about student safety.

When police recently responded to a hostage situation about half a mile away from the three Old Mill schools in Millersville, they canceled outside physical education activities. "We knew exactly what was going on, when it was going to be clear," Berzinski said.

Keeping facilities secure is a prime concern for school administrators. "We're one of the few organizations ... that our front door is always open," Berzinski said.

Ideally, he said, schools would have somebody at every door to screen who enters the building.

"There's a lot of precious commodities inside," he said.

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