Whitney Walker will have an ally when she enters Atholton High School as a freshman in August.
The 14-year-old is one of 46 students who participated in the five-day PLEDGE Leadership Academy at Oakland Mills High School. The program, which is run by the Howard County Police Department, gives incoming freshman the chance to gain leadership skills intended to help them navigate the new surroundings of high school.
The camp allows the teens to work with school resource officers, who will be familiar faces when the academic year begins.
Pfc. Dennis Matthews will be that person for Walker.
Matthews, a 20-year-veteran of the Police Department, has spent the past six years as a school resource officer. He is entering his second year at Atholton after spending five years at Long Reach High School.
"If I have problems, I can talk to him," Walker said of the officer. "He's nice. I feel like I have a good friendship with him."
Matthews said making a connection before the school year begins can be valuable for the officers, too.
"We get to meet some of the kids beforehand and forge relationships," he said. "It will give us the opportunity to be another person in the building they can turn to. It will be beneficial to her when she comes into the building. There will be someone she is familiar with. That will ease the transition."
Matthews is among the 13 school resources officers who have more of a community presence while school is on summer break. This year, the department revised the way resource officers are assigned. In the past, the officers would fill in for units such as warrants and special operations.
This summer, they are focusing on areas where they can have a stronger presence in the community. That means the officers will be monitoring bicycle trails, working street crimes and enforcing traffic safety.
"This gives us the ability to put extra officers in the community," Police Chief William J. McMahon said. "It makes a lot of sense."
That approach will allow the officers to benefit from the relationships they have built with students during the school year, said Lt. Luther Johnson, the youth division supervisor who oversees the school resource officer program.
"They are having more of an impact on the community," he said.
So far, McMahon likes what he sees.
"We're getting positive feedback," McMahon said. "The officers have been very enthusiastic about it. It's all about keeping the community safe."
Pfc. Craig Ream is patrolling bicycle trails this summer while he waits to begin his new post at Oakland Mills High School. He spent the past three years at Homewood School. Ream also worked at the leadership camp.
"We want to have a strong connection with the youth in this county," he said. "They are the future."
Ream said the camp and the bicycle assignment are good opportunities for students and the community to see police officers in a different light.
"A lot of the time there is a common misconception [about us]," Ream said. "They think we're like RoboCop. This gives us the opportunity to show we are real people, with real jobs, who care about them."
During the leadership programs, students completed a variety of team-building activities and learned about gang intervention, substance abuse, peer pressure and domestic violence. Several speakers from throughout the community make presentations. A member of HCDrug Free spoke to the students about substance abuse.
The leadership program, which is open to all county students, wrapped up Friday evening with a graduation ceremony for participants. The students voiced appreciation for the lessons they learned, the relationships they built with the officers and the relationships they built with one another.
"It's very important to have new experiences," said Matthew Hemler, 14, who will attend Oakland Mills. "Next year, we'll be with kids of different backgrounds. It's a primer for high school."
Officers like Matthews and Ream will be there to help ease the transition.
"I'm glad we're here," Ream said. "It will pay off dividends for them and for us personally."