- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

HURLOCK, Md. — At remote North Dorchester High School, she was known as “Mace” after stepping into a fight that got out of control in a crowded hallway.

Andrea Robinson, the solo sheriff’s deputy assigned to the campus of 600 teenagers, was backed only by the principal and teachers when she grabbed a strong and angry student who was more than 6 feet tall.

Minutes later, fists swinging, the student lurched back into the pack of students. Deputy Robinson sprayed him with the aerosol once, and he fell to the floor. Firefighters were called to clear the volatile fumes from the hallway.

The entire incident might not have happened, Deputy Robinson said, if more deputies were assigned to North Dorchester.

As school begins this month in many Maryland districts, administrators are concerned about whether the thin ranks of officers will be able to handle the students crowding the halls.

“The school-resource officers are very crucial,” said Wicomico Sheriff Maj. Gary Baker, whose department started a school-deputy program in 1990. “They are the busiest law-enforcement officers we have when school is in session. The amount of offense reports we do will increase dramatically when school opens.”

The state doesn’t keep track of how many officers are assigned to schools, said Lynn Linde, chief of student services at the Maryland Department of Education. But there’s no question that schools could use more of them, she said.

The problem is student-resource officers aren’t systematically funded by the state. They’re not funded by the Department of Education or by Maryland State Police, except in certain circumstances, Miss Linde said.

At a time when students carry guns to school and use drugs in the bathrooms, school administrators and sheriff’s departments agree that officers should be stationed on campuses full time. But they often haggle over whose department should pay for them.

“There’s no one funding stream for these positions, so every school system is on its own in figuring out how they’re going to pay for them,” Miss Linde said.

In Dorchester County, officials don’t know from year to year if they will be able to afford school officers. Two deputies are each assigned to a middle and a high school, and the upcoming school year is the last of a three-year U.S. Department of Justice grant for the officers.

“Next year, we’ll have to decide if we want to continue the program,” said Sheriff James Phillips Jr.

He says he knows that even two deputies are not enough.

The officer assigned to the 1,000 students at Cambridge-South Dorchester High School last year arrested 100 students and documented 189 incidents.

“A ratio of 1,000-to-1 is crazy,” Sheriff Phillips said. “With one school-resource officer [SRO] at each end of the county, we’re in a totally reactive mode. Ideally, the presence of an SRO should be preventive.”

The county has no alternative school for teens with behavior problems and no juvenile jail. So, deputies often arrest the same students repeatedly.

Last year, Deputy Robinson arrested 54 students and filed 84 incident reports. Most of the reports are of fights, of thefts and of students bringing marijuana or weapons, such as hunting knives, to school.

“What goes on in the community, the same [thing] goes on here,” said Tom Gebert, principal of Cambridge-South Dorchester.

It’s difficult to keep track of 600 students by herself, Deputy Robinson said. During class change or after school, her instincts often tell her that more than one group of teens needs to be followed, sometimes to prevent a brawl. She has to decide — which one?

Deputy Robinson also is responsible for patrolling bathrooms and the campus’ entrances. There are no metal detectors or cameras at the school.

“There is a lot of ground to cover,” she said.

If a fight does get out of control, backup deputies from the sheriff’s office in Cambridge are 10 minutes away.

“Ten minutes feels like an hour when you’re in the middle of a fight,” said Heather Moore, the deputy assigned to Cambridge-South Dorchester High. The round shape of the building also doesn’t help. It limits her distance for visibility, and she can’t see around corners.

Deputy Moore’s crowd can be tough. They broke the windshield of her cruiser with a chunk of concrete in the school parking lot.

As classes began last fall, one student said to her face, “I run the school.”

Sheriff Phillips has a plan for putting seven deputies into the school system, two for each high school and one for each middle school. But with the county’s budget already stretched, he knows it’s not likely.

A lack of money in Wicomico County presented its sheriff with a staffing dilemma: He had to close three substations or cut school officers. He closed the substations.

“The one thing we realize, and the sheriff realizes is that school-resource officers is one of the most important programs we have,” Sheriff Baker said.

Their most valuable job is trying to prevent as many serious problems as possible, sheriffs and school principals have found. Because they are a constant presence and they protect student informants, they earn their teens’ trust.

By the end of last school year, Deputy Robinson often was able to show up at fights before they started. She used her Mace twice after that first incident in the hallway.

“We’re not a parent, and we’re not a teacher. They tell us things that for some reason they wouldn’t tell [another] adult,” Deputy Robinson said.

“They think I’m the coolest cop they’ve ever met.”

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