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South High to get its own probation officer

May 21, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

South Hagerstown High School students who have had run-ins with the law will be under a closer watch next school year, when a probation officer begins working in the school.

The school is getting the first probation officer allotted to Washington County under a new statewide program designed to curb violence and disruption in the public schools, said Don Vandrey, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

It's one of 80 schools in Maryland, including Heather Ridge High School in Frederick County, that will get an on-site probation officer through the Spotlight in Schools program, a joint initiative of Glendening and Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Vandrey said.

While gladdened by the news, Washington County school officials said they were worried the term "probation officer" might give the wrong idea about their intentions in requesting the grant-funded position.

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Washington County is luckier than some school systems in the state, which need the probation officers to deal with serious problems in their schools, said Schools Superintendent Herman G. Bartlett Jr.

"We believe this is more preventative than compliance and law and order," Bartlett said.

Sharing a campus with the county's Alternative School, South Hagerstown seemed the logical place to put the free help, he said.

While the school probably has a sufficient caseload for its own probation officer, students on probation are mainly first-time offenders who committed minor offenses and not physically harmful crimes, said Principal Richard L. Martin.

"I hope the impression isn't that we have a bunch of murdering thugs going to South High," Martin said.

Having probation officers in county schools is not new, Martin said. Probation officers generally visit with students at school, where they can also check their progress with teachers and administrators, he said.

Having one on-site probation officer rather than several different ones visiting will help the officer get a better feel for students and the school environment, Martin said.

The way he sees it, it's just one more support service to help turn students around, he said.

Robert E. Weaver, Washington County supervisor for the Department of Juvenile Justice, said he's very excited about the news based on positive results of a similar program in Pennsylvania and Maryland's pilot program in Prince George's County.

During the 1996-1997 school year, participating Prince George's County schools cut suspensions by 36 percent, according to the governor's office. And none of their students on probation were arrested for new offenses.

There are about 250 juveniles on probation in Washington County now, Weaver said.

He said the state program will allow his office to hire one juvenile counselor position, paying roughly $24,000 a year.

If things go well, he said he envisions other county schools requesting their own probation officers, which is what happened in Pennsylvania.

Though she hadn't heard of the program, Washington County Teachers Association President Sharon Chirgott said she liked its prevention-oriented approach and thought teachers would be glad to have the resource.

"Anything that helps students stay in school and get an education," Chirgott said.

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