Officer Don Bridges stepped into the courtyard of Franklin High School, where students chatted as they ate their lunches, sipping from cartons of chocolate milk and bottles of soda. A group of six teens milled about by the entrance.
"You all being good out here?" Bridges asked the boys.
"Uh-huh," a few of them answered.
For nearly a decade, Bridges has been a fixture at the Reisterstown school of about 1,500 students. Now, he's headed for a weeklong visit to the nation of Georgia, where leaders are setting up their own school officer program.
He helped start Baltimore County's School Resource Officer program, which places police in high schools and middle schools to improve safety. The program is now one of the country's largest.
Bridges, 45, left Friday for the trip with three other members of the National Association of School Resource Officers. He serves as the organization's treasurer.
Georgia's Ministry of Education and Science reached out to NASRO a few months ago, Bridges said.
"This is viewed by them as a first step to implementing a community policing model," he said. "And they are looking to train a lot of police officers."
As a school resource officer, Bridges doesn't just patrol the grounds. He mentors at-risk students and intervenes in cases involving drugs, vandalism and fights. Recently, he helped coordinate calls related to a report of child abuse. He also steps into classrooms to teach students about issues such as constitutional law and distracted driving.
"It's very, very nice to have an officer basically on staff," said Principal Pat McCusker.
The philosophy of the SRO program is to make officers visible and approachable as a way of improving school safety and student behavior.
"It isn't like you are a stranger," Bridges said. "They feel more comfortable coming to you with a lot of different issues."
On the trip, Bridges and other NASRO officers will meet with Georgian education and law enforcement officials about setting up training for police next year. Bridges also hopes to visit schools.
"It will be a busy stretch, because we have so much to do in a very, very short period," he said.
Georgia launched a school safety program two years ago, looking to programs in the United States for inspiration, and is developing a program to put officers in the public schools of every major city and many large towns, said Maia Siprashvili-Lee of the Ministry of Education and Science.
The program has helped cut down on bullying, vandalism and tobacco use, and made people perceive schools as safer, Siprashvili-Lee said in an email.
The trip is Bridges' first overseas. To prepare, he participated in conference calls with Georgian officials and researched the culture and history of the mountainous country between Turkey and Russia. The nation of about 4.6 million people declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Three years ago, fighting broke out between Georgian and Russian forces in the region of South Ossetia.
Bridges was to fly Friday night from Baltimore to Chicago to Turkey, and then to Georgia.
NASRO has been getting more inquiries from other countries recently, said Kevin Quinn, the association's vice president and spokesman. A few members recently returned from Guam, he said, and one visited a military base in Japan last year.
"It's starting to branch out globally," Quinn said.
An Alabama native and father of one daughter, Bridges joined the Baltimore County police in 1992. He used to patrol Reisterstown, Pikesville and Randallstown.
He feels especially fulfilled when he learns that former students have become police officers or sees a troubled child improve.
"Any time you can get a life turned around in the right direction, that is what I think this is all about," he said.
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