- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

When students returned to Montgomery County public schools for the start of classes yesterday, uniformed police officers were among the new faces they saw in the halls.

As part of the school system’s new Educational Facilities Officer program, 12 police officers will be stationed among the system’s more than 200 schools. School officials said their presence will improve safety as well as help if disaster situations, like the September 11 attacks and the Columbine High School shootings, occur.

“Our major focus is providing a plan for emergency preparedness,” said Ralph Penn, a Montgomery County police officer. “As the year goes on, we’ll be working on outreach and prevention. We’ll be doing some classroom discussions on drug and alcohol prevention and maybe on gang activity.”

The officers will be looking out for about 141,000 students from elementary through high school. They will be joined by more than 650 new teachers, who were hired this year. The school system also has filled 23 principal vacancies and hired 13 central office administrators since last spring.

Officer Penn spent most of yesterday at Montgomery Blair High School directing ninth-graders to the correct classroom or to the bathroom. But as the year goes on, he and other officers will be focusing more on curbing violence in schools.

He hopes that seeing the officers daily and realizing that they are not there to harass will encourage students to tip them off about after-school fights or daytime parties that students skip school to attend.

Discussions with officers who have participated in similar programs nationwide have provided encouragement, Officer Penn said.

“This is Montgomery County getting to a place a lot of places already are,” he said. “There wasn’t a particular event that sparked this.”

An additional 10 officers will join the program next year, and 10 more will join in the 2005-06 academic year. The U.S. Justice Department is spending $4 million for the officers through its Cops in School program.

While there may not have been a singular incident that put the officers in the schools, officials in the D.C. metropolitan area acknowledge that they are concerned about the increased gang activity over the summer.

At a round-table discussion Friday led by D.C. public schools acting Security Director Theodore Tuckson, Montgomery County schools and police officials were among those discussing how to keep youth violence from becoming a bigger problem in schools.

In an earlier event this week, officials of the county discussed their concerns about pedestrian safety for students coming and going to school.

Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast, in a news conference Monday with County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, told motorists to drive slowly around the schools and said principals at every school would be getting pedestrian-safety tool kits to educate teachers and students.

He also said schools will have a curriculum for teaching kindergarten through second-grade students how to be safe and to follow the rules of the road.

Officials also want wider crosswalks in school zones and fluorescent yellow-green school-crossing signs.

County school officials are starting the year with good news on student test scores, too.

The average SAT score for students who graduated this year, while declining a point to 1094, remained above the national and state averages. The scores remained high even though a record number of students took the test.

Children in three of the 10 poorest schools in the county did well enough on the 2003 Maryland School Assessments last spring to put them in a position to come off the state’s “watch list” if they do the same next year.

Broad Acres, Burnt Mills and Summit Hall elementary schools were the schools in which students and all subgroups passed the necessary categories.

“Right now, a lot of things are pointing in the right direction,” Mr. Weast said last week about the scores.

Six of the remaining seven schools on the state’s improvement list passed in 15 of the 16 assessment areas assigned, and the seventh school passed in 12 of the 16 categories. Students with limited English proficiency or with disabilities had the most problems.

The school system is in the final year of a four-year plan to improve academic achievement by reducing class sizes, implementing more rigorous course work and conducting formative assessments in elementary and middle school.

Improved faculty working conditions and retention of high-quality teachers and principals are other goals for the system.

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