School News: Hyattsville police officers work in schools to prevent gang activity
“Nobody should think that our schools are a place to feel fearful,” Prince George’s County Schools CEO Dr. Kevin Maxwell said following a gang-related murder in Langley Park this past spring, in which suspects were middle school students. “Gangs don’t organize around schools, they organize around communities.”
Hyattsville police officers Sgt. Michael Rudinski and Cpl. Jim Denault work to make sure students are safe at school, and to keep gangs from organizing in schools. The two are school resource officers. Rudinski is stationed at Northwestern High School, and Denault works at elementary and middle schools across the city.
School resource officers counsel and mentor students, coordinate onsite security, and serve as a liaison between schools and the police department. They are police officers with extensive additional training, and they go to work uniformed and armed. Though every high school in Prince George’s County now has a school resource officer, Sgt. Rudinski was the first in the county, brought to Northwestern in 1998 when Dr. Maxwell was serving as principal.
Gang issues in one form or another have plagued area high schools at least as far back as the late 1990s. At that time, Dr. Maxwell called an after-school peace summit of non-student gang leaders in order to calm disputes that were spilling over into the school.
Today, according to FBI reports, Prince George’s County has high gang membership. However, according to the School Climate Survey for Northwestern — the school where Sgt. Rudinski spends most of his time — over 60 percent of students say they are “not aware of a gang problem at the school.”
School resource officers work with school administrators to identify students who are at risk for gang recruitment and address the factors in those students’ lives that make them vulnerable.
Sgt. Rudinski believes his most important task is to build relationships with students, with a focus on “latch-key kids from one-parent families.” He and Cpl. Denault work to build student confidence and leadership skills. They provide “positive mentorship, time, and extra attention.” They help students set goals and then hold them accountable. They connect students with resources like peer mediation and after-school programs. In some cases, they have helped students find jobs.
For the past two years, Cpl. Denault has also taught six-week gang prevention courses to students in local elementary and middle schools, and he plans to do so again this year. He uses a curriculum developed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives called Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.). In 2012, a long-term study suggested that G.R.E.A.T. reduces gang membership among participants by an average of 39 percent a year after completion and 24 percent over a four year period.
As Sgt. tells other officers in training, gangs become active in schools because students are vulnerable targets for crimes like extortion and drug sales. Extortion at area high schools was among the crimes listed in a federal indictment of Hyattsville members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang this past summer. While major national gangs like MS-13 are active in some of the neighborhoods that feed into area high schools, smaller, less well-known neighborhood “crews” have also proliferated.
Neighborhood kids band together for protection from extortion, or new immigrants join gangs with more established immigrants from the same home countries, to avoid humiliation and bullying from their assimilated peers. Sgt. Rudinksi believes students experience pressure to join gangs, due to bullying and often stay for the money.
According to Sgt. Rudinski, for the current generation of students, the bullying can seem inescapable. Through social media, the bullying follows them into their homes. Officer Rudinski also notes a statewide trend against expelling students. As a result, a victim’s attacker may return to school after only a few days of suspension, leaving the victim to feel he or she has little choice but to seek protection through gang affiliation.
Rudinski notes that schools are reluctant to expel students for violent behavior because in Maryland, too many expulsions or long suspensions can result in a school being designated a “Persistently Dangerous School” under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Once a school has that label, parents must be notified, and students given the option to transfer.
Despite the challenges facing a school resource officer, 17 years later, Sgt.Rudinski is still enthusiastic about what he does. He says that working with students is more rewarding than the regular police work he did for more than a decade before he became a school resource officer. In that work, he would often see the same adults sent to prison over and over again. Now Sgt. Rudinski can see that his work “changes kids’ lives”.