Cops' Discipline, Tough Love Help Keep Kids In School

PATERSON, N.J. - Two years ago the principal of Paterson Public School No. 4 was at wit's end.

He was expelling a student a day. One for fighting. Another for cursing. Students seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of obnoxious behavior. Hundreds were sent home each year so that other kids could learn in peace.

In September, however, Principal Julian Jenkins didn't expel anyone. In October, only one student got the boot.

The explanation for the seemingly miraculous turnaround is Trooper Clayton Staton of the New Jersey State Police.

Two years ago, Staton, 34, took it upon himself to keep the kids of School No. 4 in the classroom and off the streets. He persuaded Jenkins and his own commander to let him start a program called Cadet Corps in which problem students would be kept in school rather than suspended. They'd be assigned to a special classroom under the watchful eyes of law-enforcement officers who would be assigned to work in the schools.

Discipline, help

The program is a mix of authority and tough love. A police officer sits at a desk watching over students for the entire school day. The officer supervises homework, enforces discipline and engages the students in conversation about their problems.

When the program started, Staton was the only officer involved. Now there are four, working in two schools, Public School No. 4 and nearby Public School No. 6.

In his 27 years as an educator, Jenkins says, he has never seen a program have such an impact on a school.

"It means that we're able to keep students in school. It means that the parents have someone they can talk to who can help them out with their children. It means the kids have an adult they know they can talk to. It means that they have a person who's from the community, a trooper who is a minority who does positive things in the school and the community."

`Their last resort'

To a visitor to Public School No. 4, the hallways are a blur of young men and women with jeans hanging low and T-shirts untucked. Their chatter bounces off the shiny floors and painted walls.

In the middle stands Staton, a slight man wearing a warm sweater on a hot fall day. When he talks, the words come out softly. When he walks, his polished black shoes barely make a sound. He glances over the students rushing by.

At his side are two other members of Cadet Corps, Lt. Morris Brown of the Housing Police and Officer Vaughn Patterson of the Paterson Police Department.

"We're their last resort," Staton says. "These kids are getting ready to be suspended. The teacher feels like she's losing control. Sometimes she can't control the kid either. Sometimes that kid is either violent or having problems at home. We know it would take a team of psychologists to work with the kid.

"This helps that teacher. Instead of her playing disciplinarian, she can now teach. In School 4, test scores have gone up 24 percent. That's all I need to know," he says.

Nearby, away from the rush of the hallway, near the school's main entrance is Cadet Corps central, where troublemakers come for their in-school suspensions. This day there are almost a dozen students. Some are there for the day, others for a week. Their infractions run the gamut: cursing, fighting, excessive tardiness, bad attitude.

Staton used to run the classroom, but now Brown and Patterson pull the shift work. Staton is concentrating on expanding Cadet Corps, building up the nonprofit organization he began in hopes of taking the program into other schools.

Inside the classroom, Brown is on patrol. When new students arrive, Brown sits them down and explains the rules. He starts by informing them of something that should be obvious: He is not a teacher. And he will not tolerate any disrespect.

"My rules are: You do your work. Be quiet. It's `Yes, sir; no, sir.' "

Brown has huge arms. His skin-tight black T-shirt is bulging. Heavy gold jewelry covers his fingers. He has gold-tipped black boots and rocks back and forth as he cruises the neat row of desks.

"You supposed to be talking?" he asks?


"You all supposed to be talking?"

"No, sir."

"Give me 10."

A young man flops to the floor. He pumps out a series of push-ups, punctuating each dip with a "Yes, sir!"

The students will spend the entire day in this room. They eat lunch here, exercise here, study here. From time to time a teacher comes in and helps with homework and handouts. Sometimes the students help each other. One girl stands over a young man and administers a spelling test he missed because he was out of class.

The idea for Cadet Corps came to Staton two years ago while he was on patrol. He hit upon it - almost literally.

A young man darted across the highway and Staton almost struck him. The state trooper had to put on his flashing lights and stop traffic to get the youth to safety.

Staton asked him what he was doing there. The kid said something that stopped the trooper in his tracks: "I'm suspended," the youth said.

"That was the end of that. I ended up taking the kid home. That's when the idea came to mind, to work with kids and try to keep them in the school system," he said.

`Sense of purpose'

Jenkins believes the officers have affected the entire school - it's not just kids in trouble who go to Brown and Staton for help.

"As you walk into the building there's a sense of purpose, a sense of home here," Jenkins said. "Trooper Staton - he remembers what life was like growing up in Paterson. There were always adults you could talk to. But they weren't always in the school. Now they're in the school."

Bernadette Green has watched her 14-year-old son Jason's behavior improve after spending a few days with the officers - punishment for fighting at school. "The kids have a better attitude," she said. "When he's in this program, he's like a different child."

Not everyone is so sure that the program is flawless. Reactions from officials from the district superintendent's office during a recent visit were varied. Assistant Superintendent Dennis Sevano said some saw value in Staton's program; others worried about its impact on the school's atmosphere.

"We just have to be careful the cop mentality doesn't become the teacher mentality," Sevano said.