Making lives better

The Baltimore Sun

Over the years, Cpl. Andrew Berryman's life has been touched by hundreds of teens.

The Harford County sheriff's deputy recalls a female student he met at Edgewood High School. Her brother and sister were involved with drugs and gangs, and she was getting heavy pressure from home and school to join a gang as well.

But when Berryman reached out and asked the young woman to help him prepare and give a presentation on gangs, she accepted. Later, she attended the sheriff's office's youth academy, and she's now taking college classes and has applied for a job as a corrections officer, he said.

"She could have gone the same way as her brother and sister, who have both done time in juvenile hall, but she didn't," he said. "It was great to be able to make a difference."

The Edgewood student's success story is one of dozens Berryman and the other members of the Harford County's school policing unit have experienced. With eight school resources officers, the unit, which operates under the auspices of the sheriff's office, is assigned to seven high schools and three middle schools in the county.

The school policing unit was established as part of a nationwide effort to protect children in schools after the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, Berryman said.

"All law enforcement officers in the schools are like the town cop," said Berryman, who has been working in the schools for the past seven years and supervises the other officers in the unit. "And the school is their town."

The idea is to get to know the students and try to reach them before there is a problem, Berryman said. Sometimes opportunities to help are obvious, he said.

"When kids are trying to start a gang, and establish themselves, they want to be in the limelight," he said. "Everyone knows who they are. But once they are in a gang, they want to draw attention away from themselves. So we want to reach them before they get to that point."

The officers also teach classes and mentor students, Berryman said. A majority of them teach health classes on topics ranging from date rape to drugs, he said. And some of them teach psychology and sociology.

In addition to safety, there are other benefits to having law enforcement officers in schools, he said. But the most important one is to give the students someone they can approach when they need advice or assistance.

"The kids get to see the officer at their school on a daily basis," he said. "They get to know each other quickly, and the students come to the officers for help with problems, or to talk."

Berryman says he loves what he does.

"I can't wait to come to work in the morning," he said. "I get to do a job where I make a difference. I get to be proactive."

Deputy First Class Khalid Mitchell, who has worked out of C. Milton Wright High for the past eight years, said he gets satisfaction from watching the students grow from ninth to 12th grade.

He recalled two boys who came to C. Milton Wright from Baltimore City their freshman year. When their mother enrolled them in school, she was intoxicated, he said. And they didn't have any lunch money, so he gave them some, he said.

During the next four years, he kept an eye on the boys, who both graduated last year. He wasn't sure what had happened with the boys, but they had been on his mind. Then a few days ago he came home and noticed a UPS truck in his driveway, he said.

"There was the one boy," he said. "He was so excited. He got out and shook my hand. It was so great to see him in the work force."

On a regular basis, the officers have to deal with students who bring weapons and drugs to school or are involved with gangs, he said. However, the drug problem at C. Milton Wright has decreased in recent years, he said.

"We haven't completely eliminated drugs at C. Milton, but we have greatly diminished it," he said.

The biggest issue at the school this year is text messaging and Internet bullying, he said.

"Text messaging and Internet bullying is so prevalent because of the instant capacity to reach someone," he said.

To battle the problem, he performs a lot of mediation, he said.

"We do a lot of face-to-face stuff," he said. "We get the story from the horse's mouth, rather than listening to other people."

Besides their daily presence, the officers run several programs throughout the county's schools, including drug and gang awareness programs.

For years, they taught the DARE program that educated children about drugs, he said. Then about five years ago they started the GREAT program, which stands for Gang Resistance Education and Training, a school-based initiative that is taught by law enforcement officers in elementary, middle and high school classrooms. The program is intended to deter delinquency, youth violence and gang membership.

About the same time that the officers launched the GREAT program, Mitchell founded the START program, or Students, Teachers and Resource Officers Together. After he noticed that only 25 to 50 kids could participate in the youth academy, which is offered in the summer months, he wanted to start something in the high school that was open to all students, he said.

The after-school initiative meets monthly in the building and includes three field trips each year. In previous years, the students have visited the detention center, crime lab, courthouse and dispatch office. Programs like START give Mitchell a chance to teach the students about law enforcement.

"I have always wanted to work with kids," said Mitchell, who has a 10-year-old and an 18-year-old. "Being a part of the school policing unit gives me an opportunity to help kids, watch them grow up and see them become successful adults make it all worth it."

school officers

The Harford County school resources officers and their assigned locations: Deputy First Class Eric Blottenberger, Harford Technical High and Southampton Middle; DFC Khalid Mitchell, C. Milton Wright High; DFC Greg Dietz, Joppatowne High; DFC Jerry Eaton, Edgewood High; DFC Robert Kovacs, Edgewood Middle; DFC Beth Harper, Fallston High; DFC Craig Thompson, North Harford High; and Cpl. Andrew Berryman, supervisor of the officers, who works at Patterson Mill Middle and High Schools. Sgt. Scott Virden is the head of the policing unit.

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