There has never been a school shooting in Harford County—but in the last 10 years, there may have been at least one close call.
Speaking before the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Police Academy Tuesday night, DFC Khalid Mitchell related a story which occurred years ago at C. Milton Wright High School. Mitchell has been the School Resource Officer there for 11 years–or, as he put it, about a third of the school’s entire existence.
According to Mitchell, a troubled student had begun amassing a collection of air rifles and occasionally wore them concealed under a trenchcoat while in public. He began asking a classmate to bring a rifle to a school function and, Mitchell said, when he persisted his fellow student contacted school officials and the Sheriff’s Office, who met with the young man and stepped in before any truly dangerous actions occurred.
Building that type of close relationship with students, one which makes them feel comfortable in reaching out in such situations, is part of the job of Mitchell and the county’s other school resources officers, who are part of the Sheriff’s Office Youth Services Division.
For Mitchell, who has worked as a corrections officer in a “supermax” prison and as a crisis negotiator, building bridges with teenagers requires a single simple but often uncommon trait.
“Not everybody can do this,” he said. “Not even every police officer. Anyone have kids here? What do you have to have? Patience. Other road deputies will ask, ‘Mitch, how can you do this?’ You have to have patience.”
The Sheriff’s Office assigns deputies as school resources officers at C. Milton Wright, Edgewood Middle School, Edgewood High School, Fallston High School, Harford Technical High School, Joppatowne High School, North Harford High School, and Patterson Mill High School. Aberdeen, Bel Air, and Havre de Grace high schools are covered by the police departments in their respective towns.
At those schools, the deputy covers a broad range of tasks, from monitoring truancy to working at sporting events to talking to students and becoming a regular presence in the halls. However, Mitchell said the deputies do not generally enforce school rules not dealing with criminal activity, what he called a “separation of church and state.”
Despite their jobs as law enforcement officers, Mitchell said the key role of a school resource officer is getting to know the students and building trust with them.
“You may think we’re there locking kids up,” he said. “That’s the opposite of what happens. We’re there everyday counseling kids.”
The most common offenses at schools other than parking and tobacco violations involve assaults and harassments, Mitchell said. But as in the case of the troubled student at C. Milton Wright—and as in the wider world—anything is possible.
“You never know what you’re going to get at a school because it’s a small community, and I’m the sheriff,” Mitchell said, before pausing and smiling at Lou Ann Bane, wife of Sheriff Jesse Bane. “No offense.”
–School resources officers aren’t the only component of the Youth Services Division, which runs other programs to build bridges with young people across the county, according to division commander Capt. Stephen Thomas.
These include the Law Enforcement Explorers Post 6600, a program for youth ages 14 to 20 interested in careers in law enforcement. Created in 2008, Thomas said the post currently boasts more than 30 members, its highest enrollment to date. The post is self-funded through donations, fundraisers, and work conducted in the community, such as directing parking at local events. Members attend two meetings each month, and have the chance to travel to national competitions.
The division also oversees Teen Court, an intervention program in which teens ages 12 to 17 charged with minor, non-violent infractions such as shoplifting experience the judicial process, standing “trial” before Judge Susan Hazlett. Those completing the program have the charges against them dropped, and are usually sentenced to serve as jurors in future trials. Thomas added that the offenders also get an eye-opener when Hazlett explains what she might have sentenced them to in regular court proceedings—of the 50 to 55 cases the program has handled, only one individual has re-offended.
Finally, the division runs the Badges for Baseball program, in which Sheriff’s Office deputies work in “underserved” communities as coaches for youth baseball squads. The seven-week program has included trips to Camden Yards and Ripken Stadium, and looks to cast officers in a more positive light than many youth see them.
“We use baseball to build a rapport with the kids,” Thomas said. “I don’t care if you can throw, I don’t care if you can catch.”
–Tuesday’s class also included tips from Maj. Christina Presberry on personal safety and protection. Though her talk didn’t include any demonstrations of physical defense maneuvers due to legal concerns, Presberry presented a variety of simple protection strategies for many situations.
The common thread between many of the tips was to remain alert and aware of your surroundings, and to avoid questionable situations, such as entering dark areas or carrying visible money away from an ATM.
Presberry also urged men not to keep their wallets in their back pocket, and told the women present to carry their purse tucked high under their arm, rather than dangling from their side. Whether confronted at home, in your car, or outside by a person demanding something, Presberry offered the classic advice to not resist or fight back.
“We have to prepare ourselves, educate ourselves,” she said. “A lot of times, there’s nothing you can do to avoid becoming a victim, you’re just there.”
NEXT WEEK: The Firearms Training System, and Graduation