Harford sheriff, schools celebrate 20 years of school resource officer program

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Twenty years ago, as the Harford County Sheriff’s Office deployed its first six school resource officers, some in Harford County questioned the need to put law enforcement officers in schools.

The program has become, over two decades, an invaluable resource as deputies developed long-term relationships with students and their parents, gave Harford residents — especially young people — an image of police beyond responders to crimes and traffic accidents, and are now part of the fabric of a school community, according to several veterans of the program.

“You’re much more embedded and ingrained in day-to-day operations,” said Senior Deputy Eric Blottenberger, who was one of the original school resource officers deployed in 1998 and remains an SRO today, assigned to North Harford High School in Pylesville.

He and the other five deputies were honored Friday as part of an event in the Harford County Public Schools headquarters in Bel Air, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Sheriff’s Office SRO program and recognize the deputies now assigned to all middle and high schools in the Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction.

Fourteen deputies are assigned to high schools, middle schools and the Alternative Education Program at the Center for Educational Opportunity in Aberdeen. The SRO program was expanded with money allocated in the fiscal year 2019 county budget so deputies could be in all middle schools as well as the high schools, in response to county residents’ concerns about deadly school shootings around the nation.

Municipal police departments in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace are responsible for providing officers for schools within their city and town boundaries. School resource officers from all three municipalities attended Friday’s event, which included remarks from Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler and Donoven Brooks, head of safety and security for the school system.

The school system and the Sheriff’s Office partnered to create the Sheriff’s School Policing Team, which was set up in August 1998, according to a Sheriff’s Office news release.

Gahler cited comments from then-Sheriff Joe Meadows, made to local media when the program started, that deputies in schools would help with problem solving, education and “show the positive side of law enforcement.”

“We know that remains so true today in 2018, but so much more responsibility is on the shoulders of the men and women of our office and the other SROs in the county and around the county,” Gahler said.

He said officers’ “first and foremost” responsibility is the safety of the school and its students and staff. They are also responsible for handling issues such as bullying and cyber-threats that officials have determined led to “some of the horrific events” in other schools around the country.

“Hopefully, through these programs, we’re able to stem or prevent those from happening in the first place,” Gahler said.

Local officials planned to have all deputies hired and in schools by January, but they were in place as of late November. Thursday was their first full day on duty, according to Gahler.

Brooks said school system leaders are excited about the additional resource officers. He thanked the sheriff for his agency’s continued partnership, noting that “it means a great deal” to the school district.

“Our school policing team has a tremendous amount of responsibility, and they rise to the occasion each and every time,” Brooks said.

He said the officers are “definitely ambassadors [for] both safety and education.”

The nonprofit Harford Sheriff Foundation provided funding to purchase commemorative coins that are for sale to the public, said Erik Robey, director of legislative and community affairs for the Sheriff’s Office.

Coins were presented to three of the six original members of the school policing team, including Blottenberger, Lt. Hugh John Dougherty and Lt. Mark Fox. Dougherty is the commander of the Sheriff’s Office Community Services Division, which includes the school resource officer program. Fox is the director of the Sheriff’s Office training academy.

Two other former team members, David Datsko and Steve Rathgeber, have retired but could not be present Friday. The final member, Sgt. Ian Loughran, died suddenly in September 2012.

Gahler called Loughran “one of the fallen heroes of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office,” referring to personnel who have died in the line of duty.

SRO program origins

Harford County’s school policing program started as deadly school shootings were happening around the nation in the late 1990s — in West Paducah, Kentucky, in 1997; Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Springfield, Oregon, in 1998; and Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

“It started to get the attention of not only the media but parents, so that concern started to develop [about school shootings],” Fox said after the news conference.

He said the school system and the Sheriff’s Office had been “very forward-thinking” in establishing the school policing unit. The Columbine shooting happened nearly a year after the unit was established.

Dougherty said placing police officers in schools was “not a completely brand new concept,” as it had been happening in the U.S. since the 1950s, “but it was very new for this area.”

He recalled that some people in Harford questioned whether police were needed in local schools, saying “our schools aren’t bad, we’re not having problems.”

The public’s view has changed, though, as people get used to seeing the deputies and their patrol vehicles each day at the school.

“I think they’re not only more receptive, I think it’s much more expected that we’re there,” Dougherty said.

Dougherty said deputies are in schools as a resource for administrators and staff. In 1998, each deputy was assigned to a geographic area based around the local high school, middle school and feeder elementary schools. School resource deputies today are assigned to a specific school.

Dougherty said he was assigned to Joppa-area schools, Fox to the Edgewood area, and Blottenberger to Fallston.

Deputies patrolled the area schools and responded to issues such as fights, and they worked with students by teaching classes, running clubs — Fox recalled even coaching baseball.

They do similar things today, such as running criminal justice clubs for students, helping to teach government classes, even operating summer youth academies.

Fox said he has been out of school policing for about 16 years, but he still meets people who remember him as “Deputy Fox.”

“All of our school resource officers, they establish relationships not only with the students but with the parents, and those relationships extend well into the future,” he said.

Dougherty said deputies can handle in-school law enforcement matters such as tobacco and drug use, as well as fights, and they handle issues that might “spill over into the schools” from the home or the greater community.

Building trust

Blottenberger, who is in his fourth year at North Harford High School, has also worked at the Fallston-area schools, Southampton Middle School and Harford Technical High School, both in Bel Air.

He said deputies build trust “one student at a time,” to get to a point where youths tell him about incidents that happened outside of school, or even on behalf of other students unwilling to talk to police.

“I take that as a compliment,” he said.

Blottenberger said a typical day starts before 7 a.m., when he checks in with school administrators. He checks the bus ramp and student drop-off area at the beginning of the day and during dismissal. He usually visits the cafeteria during lunch, giving him time to talk with students.

He said he tries to be in the hallways during class changes, and he often checks areas of the building such as stairwells to ensure they are secure. He will alert administrators to any potential “weak points.”

“I would liken it that you’re a police chief in a small town and the principal is the mayor,” Blottenberger said of his job.

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