Police officer has unique way to keep students out of ‘the system’

Sgt. Suzie Johnson in her first full school year as the Student Resource Officer at Northwestern High School. Photo by Heather Wright.

BY HEATHER WRIGHT — In 2011, Sgt. Suzie Johnson was a finalist for the America’s Most Wanted All-Star award for her work on the city’s police force and in the community. In 2015, she was awarded the Community Service Officer of the Year award from the Police Chiefs’ Association of Prince George’s County. In March 2016, she brought her community focus to Northwestern High School as the new student resource officer (SRO).

After attending several SRO classes during the summer as preparation for her first full school year as Northwestern High School’s SRO, Johnson found herself thinking about how to best support her students. During SRO classes, she said, the instructors “were talking about how they’re trying to keep kids from going into the system while they’re in school.” Johnson said she started thinking about how to keep students out of the juvenile justice system and started searching for “student behavior contracts” on the internet. Using internet examples, she drew up one of her own, got it approved, and has slowly started using it for some “school disruption” charges.

Johnson said, “Kids fight, kids do silly things they shouldn’t do, and my thing is, do we really want our kids to go into the system for a fight that caused a school disruption, which is technically a crime? … Do we want our kids in the system for making mistakes … if it’s something minor that they can learn from?” She compared school disruption charges in school to what would be considered “disorderly conduct” on the streets.

From the time of an incident, Johnson said, the Maryland criminal system gives police officers a year and a day to charge someone with a crime. Instead of submitting the charge to the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) at the time of the incident, Johnson, at her discretion and in agreement with school administration, counseling staff, the student’s parents or guardians and the student, might implement a behavior contract with the student. The contract says that the student agrees to follow all school rules and behavior expectations at Northwestern High School; to not get into fights or disrupt school; to not break any criminal laws; to work hard in classes and be respectful; and to follow rules at home. If these conditions are met, the school disruption charge will be dropped at the end of the year-and-a-day time period. If the student does not meet the goals, the original school disruption charge will be submitted through DJS and the school administration could also administer additional punishment.

As of press time, Johnson said, she had four students on behavior contracts because of fights that led to school disruption. “So far,” she said, “it’s working.” Most importantly, none of the students on a contract had entered into another disruptive fight. Johnson said she was monitoring students and checking in with them, and they were complying with their contract terms.

Principal E. Carlene Murray said in an email, “I love what Officer Johnson is doing with the contracts because it gives students the opportunity to correct their behavior. She does a fantastic job of engaging our students, and she supports them constantly so that they can improve. The contracts seem to be working and students have a newfound respect for themselves and the police.”

In addition to keeping students out of the justice system, Johnson said, another benefit of the contract system was helping her to gain students’ trust: “[The students] are like, ‘Aw man, I’m getting a break.’ They tend to come to me a lot more now. The trust is developing, and I love it.”  At press time, Johnson was not able to provide names of parents or students willing to talk to the Hyattsville Life & Times about the behavior contracts, likely because of the nature of the problems that led to the contracts in the first place.

Gaining students’ trust is especially important because Johnson sees SROs as mentors who need to earn it. Johnson half-jokingly said she will know her contract system is successful when she works graduation and sees the same students walk across the stage. She said she wants to find a way to help kids get along better. Johnson spoke emphatically about her commitment to Northwestern and how she wants people to see it as the good school it is, with good kids. Johnson noted that her mother graduated from Northwestern in 1962, Johnson herself graduated in 1984, her son graduated in 2012, and her daughter in 2015.

“This is just, like, my school,” Johnson said. The students who are in the school now — including those on contracts — will be “taking care of us in another 20 years; we want them on the right track,” Johnson said. “They need people they can trust.”