The starting running back for an Anne Arundel County high school football team doesn’t like world history, wears a hoodie to class and is soft spoken. He also has a probation officer right down the hall.
Through a state-funded program called Spotlight on Schools, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services places case managers within 65 middle and high schools across the state, which probation officers believe increases graduation rates by providing close monitoring and support for students in the juvenile justice system.
“The ultimate goal is to keep them in school,” said Shannon Hazard, the football player’s caseworker who has worked in the high school for three years. “I have daily check-ins with the students and monitor everything from behavior to grades, to be aware of everything that is going on.”
Hazard attends weekly disciplinary meetings and works closely with the school administration and counselors to provide resources for about 20 students and their families each year.
While not every caseworker has an office within their designated school, each caseworker responds to attendance problems, disruptive behavior, suspensions and dropout issues, according to Eric Solomon, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
Case managers are assigned to all 25 high schools in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s Counties, and the remaining 40 are spread in schools across the state.
“We use prevention services and intervention services like peer mediation, referrals to social workers, school psychologists, community-based programs and mental and physical health experts to accommodate the students,” Hazard said.
Hazard also contacts the student’s parents weekly and uses progress reports to provide feedback from teachers and administrators.
“I see a positive change in my son now that he is in this program…[and] a huge improvement in his grades,” said the mother of the 17-year-old football player, whom Hazard has supervised for almost a year. “And at any time I can call Miss Hazard and she will answer the phone and tell me what’s going on…or if something is going on with a situation I may be having, I can call her and speak to her.”
The Maryland Department of Juvenile Services does not release the identities of youth in the program or the names of schools that participate in the program.
“It got me going to school a lot more and got me back into sports,” said the teenager, a senior who is expected to graduate this year.
When Spotlight on Schools was started as a pilot program in southern Prince George’s County in 1996, a preliminary evaluation “found a significant decline in absenteeism, disciplinary referrals and suspensions among probationers,” according to a 1999 National Center for Juvenile Justice report.
But since the program’s inauguration, a formal assessment has not been conducted, according to Solomon.
“I think it would be in the state’s best interest to do an assessment of the program to see if it is doing what it is intended to do,” said Monique Dixon, director of The Open Society Institute—Baltimore’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Program, which aims to keep juveniles out of the justice system.
“Placing probation officers [in schools] presumably to force a young person to behave, or risk probation, is very similar to the scared-straight program model, which research has shown does not have a deterrent effect on young people’s behaviors,” Dixon said.
According to a 2003 report by the American Bar Association Juvenile Justice Center and the Mid-Atlantic Juvenile Defender Center, there are other problems with the program: A higher number of school incidents are reported to courts, and often caseworkers are given too many additional responsibilities.
Instead, the view of The Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s program, which supported the report, is that schools and the community are best equipped to handle juvenile justice issues in schools, Dixon said.
But the mother of the Spotlight on Schools participant said that she is “all for this program being in schools, because it’s hands on…[and] it gives kids a second chance.”
And Hazard said she has seen “a great success rate working together as a team…really collaborating together with the school system and the police.”
“The goal is to increase the success rate for all the youth we work with, and we have definitely seen that in an increase in more referrals from the schools and graduation rates,” Hazard said.