Resource officers eyed for county middle schools

The Howard County Police Department and county school system are considering placing armed school resource officers, for the first time, in several middle schools.

While a plan for adding school resource officers is still in its preliminary stages, $400,000 was added to the county's 2012 operating budget for youth services provided by the police department.

According to a list of goals in the county's approved budget, the budget includes four additional sworn officers for the police Youth Services Division as school resource officers assigned to middle schools.

No middle schools have been selected to have resource officers, school and police officials said, and the program would not begin this year.

Deputy Chief Maj. Gary Gardner said placing officers in county middle schools had been under consideration for several years.

Any program in middle schools would differ from the high school program, Gardner said, and would focus more on education, perhaps involving officers in classroom instruction.

"It's not like we have a high crime rate in middle schools, heaven forbid," said Kevin Burnett, a retired Howard County police officer and current coordinator of school security for the Howard County Public School System. "This would be about prevention."

While placing officers in the county high schools 11 years ago met with some opposition, the program is now viewed as a success, according to school, county and police officials.

"Once it was understood what (the SROs) would be doing, supporting the school and the community, it was well-received," said County Council member Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat and former chairwoman of the county Board of Education. "It was very beneficial for the community from my perspective as a parent and as a board member. I think it's a valuable program."

Help for teachers

Burnett said the program was started in the high schools for three reasons: concern about safety, gang activity at younger ages and, the death of a Wilde Lake High School teacher who suffered a heart attack while trying to break up a fight.

"Teachers aren't trained to break up fights," Burnett said. "Having a police presence there is to support the school, and support the community. If something's going on in the community, it's going on in the school."

Burnett said Howard County had a school officer program before any other jurisdiction in the area, although the officers are common throughout the region now — including, in some counties, in middle schools.

In Baltimore County, for example, 63 officers are stationed in schools, two in each high school and one in each middle school. Anne Arundel County has an officer stationed at each high school and at 11 middle schools. Montgomery County has officers at six of its 25 high schools, none in middle schools.

Looking at those other jurisdictions would play a part in determining the structure of a middle school program in Howard County, Gardner said.

"We want to see the pros and cons, the successes and the hurdles faced elsewhere as we step into the middle schools," he said.

Support on council

County Council Chairman Calvin Ball said the money approved by the council represented a commitment to public safety, and an alignment of financial priorities with the council's values.

"It's not just about controlling issues, but about preventing issues," he said. "There's an importance to community policing, and supporting school resource officers at the middle school level would have a positive impact on the school and the community."

Burnett said a meeting in August with school system employees and the police department would help determine how the program would move forward.

County Council member Jen Terrasa, a Columbia Democrat, said she supported placing officers in middle schools.

"There's a lot of empty free time for these kids during middle school hours, and parents of middle-schoolers are struggling," she said. "It's hard to find structured activity, and there's a lot of issues with youth after school, and that spills into school the next day."

Terrasa, a parent of an incoming seventh grader at Hammond Middle School, said that the middle school years can be difficult, and having a school resource officer could resolve issues before they even began.

"In terms of working with youth before it becomes a court issue, or a police issue, SROs are key," she said. "These are conversations I've had for many years: how can we recognize problems before they erupt, like with kids who are already 'borrowing' bikes, and you want to get this taken care of at the school level .… We're all trying to work together to raise kids up and fill in the gaps we see at the middle school."

Other parents see the program having a positive impact on the school environment as well. Chaunfayta Hightower, president of the PTA Council of Howard County and mother of two Glenwood Middle School students, said she had heard a "smattering of discussions" on the matter as early as a year ago.

"I think the idea is actually a very good one," she said. "One of the things we talk about in terms of intervention, is that it needs to take place at the middle school level, to make sure there's not increase in dropouts.

"We want our children to go through and complete their education and get a diploma, and to provide resources early on to bypass any problems is a wise decision."

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