NEWARK, N.J. -- Dawn creeps through the windows of the Essex County Youth Detention Center, and about 50 teen-agers -- accused of murder, theft, rape -- sleepily eat breakfast. Then a short man with a military bearing enters the room and bids them good morning.
Without hesitation, the teen-agers stand ramrod straight. Then, loudly and in unison, they shout: "Good morning! Director Clark! Sir!"
Yes, that Clark. Crazy ol' Joe (as some of Newark's black ministers call him). The black Batman (as a gang of high school students once dubbed him).
The bat-toting principal of Paterson, N.J.'s Eastside High (as a national news magazine once celebrated him).
Joe Louis Clark is back from exile. Since last year, he has worked as director of the decaying, inner-city detention center just off Sussex Street. And because he plays by his own rules, controversy has followed him here, and the same government types who disparaged and investigated him at Eastside are investigating him again.
"I love it," he says. "Let them fire me again, let them investigate, but they'll never take my struggle, my raison d'etre away," he says. "Because I know my reason for being: to raise hell."
Eight years ago, Joe Clark was on the cover of Time. A 20-year veteran of the Paterson school system, he had taken the helm of Eastside High in 1982 and restored order with a bullhorn and a baseball bat.
He expelled students he determined were drug "dealers, hoodlums and miscreants" without asking the school board's approval. He deliberately disobeyed fire codes by keeping school exit doors chained to keep the dealers from coming back. He announced his own dress code and suspension policies, and he fired administrators who dared to challenge him.
Even as Clark was being cheered by U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett for his tough policies, the critics moved in. The teachers union accused the principal of "making teen-agers the enemy."
Clark used the publicity to make his argument for more rigorous academic standards. He was widely quoted as saying that some students would have to fail for others to succeed. His bullheadedness attracted Hollywood, with Morgan Freeman playing him in the 1989 movie "Lean on Me."
But the publicity, combined with heart problems, also forced him out of the Eastside job. So he turned to the lecture circuit for six years, though Clark says he yearned for a new challenge and venue to fight against what he calls "institutional racism."
Clark's experience is that young people, who are notoriously susceptible to outside pressures, have a way of meeting adult expectations of them, so such expectations should be set high. He argues that by making excuses for young blacks, society has set lower expectations for them.
"I say that's a racist phenomenon, because it's emanating from the civil rights pimps and hustlers, and white liberals," says Clark. "And I like to tell the white liberals, 'Shut up, you're a bunch of lying hypocrites.' "
Clark's own advice to teachers, detailed in his 1989 book "Laying Down the Law," is a mix of liberal and conservative ideas:
Motivate young people by appealing to their sense of racial pride, while imposing rigid discipline and severe punishment for those who deviate from standards. He has written: "I want to project an image of black people that is the opposite of what racist individuals have concocted for us."
Last year, Clark's fortunes changed. Against the advice of officials who thought he would be unmanageable, Essex County Executive James Treffinger offered Clark the job at the juvenile detention center.
When he accepted, the irony that he would now be responsible for the kind of teen-agers he once threw out of Eastside was not lost on Clark. He decided to take a more spiritual tact, bringing in ministers and encouraging inmates to study the Bible.
Some of Clark's old critics were happy to see him take a job in a field in which he had no experience. The Essex County youth center houses more than 200 teen-agers in a facility built for half that. The inmates are 95 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic. The average stay, as the young people await trial, is 60 days.
In 1993, a federal court appointed a master to oversee the rat-infested center. Despite some improvements, Essex County's youth detention facility was a disgrace, and any director seemed doomed to fail.
But Clark, says Master Bennet Zurofsky, has helped turn the center around. There are the visits from ministers and teachers. A new boot camp. And discipline that is unusual for such a facility.
The state of New Jersey may hold the deed, but the building belongs to Joe Clark. A list of rules, signed by Clark and posted at the entrance, notes that even state officials must comply, and concludes with a favorite phrase of the director: "No exceptions will be tolerated."
Detainees are required to address him as "Director Clark, sir!" and listen to the harangues of a man whose desk nameplate reads "The Brown Bomber," the nickname of boxer Joe Louis, for whom he was named. He boasts like a boxing champion.
"I speak like this because this is a historic time in the country. Unless we quickly do something to change these children, we as a society are headed to a rendezvous with some kind of strange calamity in our cities," he says. "What I mean is this: These hoodlums are out of control."
More than once, Joe Clark's idea of control has bumped up against the laws of the state. His requirement that all inmates receive buzz haircuts -- even though as residents of a detention center they have not been convicted of anything -- is probably illegal, officials say.
Then, there is the recent incident which has led some inmates to dub Clark "Shackle."
During church services one Sunday last month, a group of 12 youths rioted and threw feces and urine at security guards. Clark had the teen-agers chained to their beds -- for two days.
State officials called the shackling illegal and began an investigation that continues today. But the county executive and dozens of inmate advocates have rallied to Clark's side. When Clark is asked about the controversy, the director talks as if recounting a boxing upset.
"These 12 did not believe I would do this, because of all the bureaucrats," Clark says. "That's why this quixotic crusader had to shackle them. I'm not going to let a handful of individuals hold the jailer captive."
Being under fire seems only to have made Clark sunnier. He has issued new rules banning packages to detainees (a common drug entry method) and establishing a dress code for visitors to the center. He has also been writing and speaking more, advocating orphanages as a way to reduce the prison population.
Sometimes he thinks about his days at Eastside High School, and about how very little has changed. "My tactics are still the same," he says. "There's very little difference between a school and a jail, when you think about it. The only real difference is that many people in the schools have not been incarcerated yet."
Pub Date: 10/27/96