We all know that some high school students have a problem with authority. School Resource Officer (SRO) Joseph Lowery wants to change that, at least where he is concerned.
His job is to act as a liaison between Quince Orchard and Poolesville high schools and the Gaithersburg Police Department, befriending students and providing school officials with the information they need to prepare for emergencies, keep order and ensure safety.
“Instead of having a beat in the community, my beat is the schools,” he said. “I work with the principal, assistance principal and school security team to help enhance safety and security. We want to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding things going on in the community.”
Lowery’s responsibilities include things like providing drug awareness training, facilitating emergency preparedness drills and promoting conflict resolution. For example, recently there was a confrontation between two groups of students. After appropriate discipline was administered by the school staff, he sat down with both groups to see what had caused the problem and try to prevent a recurrence.
In addition, he gives safety presentations at parent-teacher association meetings and other gatherings where parents are present, so they can ask him questions directly.
Although there is some overlap, the primary difference between him and the school’s security staff is that, except for making the occasional drug or weapon arrest, Lowery generally does not enforce school rules.
“A lot of people think I’m here because of all the craziness that’s happening in other communities with school shootings and things like that, and certainly I play a role there,” he said. “But mostly I’m here to act as a resource to make sure both sides understand crime trends and other stuff that might affect the students.”
Because he’s not responsible for discipline, Lowery is freed up to perform a crucial part of his job: forming good relationships with the students. His dual goals are to improve their perception of authority figures—particularly the police—and to develop reliable sources of information that will help predict patterns of crime, drug use, etc.
“The ultimate goal is to get to know the kids and the staff, because that’s really the most important piece,” he said.
To that end, he interacts with students between classes and during lunch, and he speaks in the classroom when he can. “Those are my favorite ways to meet kids because no one’s in trouble, and kids ask lots of good questions,” he said.
For example, foreign students sometimes mistakenly believe that local police are responsible for enforcing immigration laws, which can dissuade them from reporting crimes. “That kind of environment can give criminals free reign because they know victims won’t call the police,” Lowery said.
Another misconception relates to the overall purpose of the SRO program.
“When the program started, I think some parents thought we were going to be targeting children,” he said. “But the last tool in my belt is to arrest kids.”
Instead, he tries to understand them, which means thinking beyond their immediate actions. “Kids’ behavior may be just a sign of trouble dealing with something at home,” he said.
If Lowery could say one thing to both parents and students, it would be this: Vigilance on everyone’s part makes for more livable neighborhoods.
“Everyone needs to understand what’s going on in the community,” he said. “If you see something, say something. Kids are like citizens here at the school, and they need to have an equal partnership with the police department to make sure the school stays safe.”