From School Reform to Reform School

Joe Clark: The Sequel

By Stan Karp

Joe Clark is back. The New Jersey principal, whose bullhorn and baseball bat became national symbols of a law-and-order brand of school reform in the 1980s, and whose exploits were glorified in the 1989 film Lean On Me, has resurfaced in a new job. He’s running a prison.

Last July, the former Eastside High School principal was named director of the Essex County Youth House, a juvenile correctional facility for youth awaiting trial or transfer to other facilities. The 80-year-old institution is notorious for overcrowding and poor conditions, and for the past year has been under a Federal court order to make improvements. Clark’s appointment is apparently part of the “makeover.” As one state official told the New York Times, “The facility has been substandard for so many years, you need someone to develop a positive spin for the staff and for the kids.”

Developing a “spin,” positive or otherwise, is Joe Clark’s stock-in-trade. As the principal of Paterson, N.J.’s troubled Eastside High School in the early ’80s, Clark became a national figure for his “get tough” rhetoric and authoritarian approach to the problems of city schools. He made headlines with wholesale expulsions of students he labeled “leeches” and “parasites,” baseball-bat discipline, and inflammatory denunciation over his bullhorn of anyone who questioned his dictatorial ways. After someone in the Reagan White House read a profile of “Crazy Joe” in Reader’s Digest, Clark became the darling of Reagan and his Education Secretary William Bennett, who endorsed him as a model of the no-nonsense school administrator urban schools needed. “Sometimes you need Mr. Chips, sometimes you need Dirty Harry,” Bennett said.


In educational terms, Clark’s reign at Eastside was a total failure. The dropout rate, fed by his summary expulsions, rose 45%, the number of students going on to higher education dropped by over 10%, and standardized test scores remained painfully low. Two-thirds of the teaching staff left or transferred during his tenure.

Clark specialized in ludicrous invective and offensive racial comments directed at anyone who got in his way. To cite a few of countless examples: he dismissed one coach because “demonic spirits had captured his putrefied soul;” denounced a popular choir teacher over the loudspeaker as a “dizzy broad;” complained that a city council member was “a mere Puerto Rican;” and charged a Muslim parent critic with dressing “funny,” speculating that she might be “hiding a bomb” in her hijab or headdress. Clark’s mean-spirited confrontations left scores of abused teachers, bullied students, and outraged parents up in arms, and the school in constant turmoil.

But Clark’s ability to attract national attention had less to do with his actual performance at Eastside than with his usefulness to the Reagan/Bush administration and a simple-minded media as a black proponent of law and order repression for the “underclass.” His bullhorns and bluster were considerably cheaper than new educational programs or credible reform initiatives. As a tough-talking African American authority figure, he could also voice repressive sentiments in crudely provocative ways that his political sponsors couldn’t always get away with. Blaming the teenage victims of school failure for the crisis of urban education, and proposing stiffer repression of young black “criminals” as the solution, resonated with both the right’s political agenda and the fears and prejudices of large sections of the population.

But while Clark proved to be an educational charlatan, his tenure at East-side was an unqualified success in terms of self-promoting media hype. During his 15 minutes of fame, he appeared on the cover of Time, was interviewed on Sixty Minutes and countless other shows, and finally attained the contemporary equivalent of canonization in the form of his own docudrama. The film, from the director of Rocky, was a sanitized, self-serving account of Clark’s years at Eastside that still irritates many Paterson teachers and parents every time they go into a video store.

Clark parlayed his celebrity into a profitable second career and a one-way ticket out of Paterson. After undergoing heart surgery in 1989, he secured a $240,000 buyout from the Paterson Board of Education with which he had been in perpetual conflict. In addition to working on the movie, Clark went on the book and lecture circuit, pulling in up to $7,000 a session to tell audiences, among other things, why it was necessary to bring back capital punishment. He also made an unsuccessful run for local office. Explaining why he left Eastside, Clark said recently, “The whale outgrew the ocean. I was too big for the situation. I’ve never looked back.”

Before he took off for greener pastures he declared, “When I leave this school, if it didn’t plummet to the depths of despair, if it didn’t become violence-ridden, drugs and stabbings, all the things that I inherited did not reappear, I would be chagrined.” In fact, things calmed down considerably after Clark left Eastside. Though the school continues to struggle academically and educationally, there’s been a dramatic decrease in tension and staff conflict and no detectable rise in criminal incidents. Clark isn’t “chagrined,” of course. It’s not his style.


Clark’s progression from school cop to prison warden is ripe with irony. Joe Clark has always represented a police action rather than an educational policy, and one that could only be imposed on a relatively powerless population. (“If he took a bullhorn and baseball bat to Beverly Hills,” said one observer at the height of the hype, “he’d be bounced out by the weekend.”) In fact, Joe Clark’s educational career is a painful reminder that for a generation of those worst-served by our educational system, school reform meant little more than rhetorical hot air and a kind of educational triage. His evolution from a principal who put chains on the school doors to a juvenile jail keeper parallels a threefold rise in the number of people imprisoned in the U.S., and reflects social trends that continue to push appalling numbers of young people out of schools and into prisons.

As the director of a juvenile prison, Clark will be filling a familiar role. The Republican county executive who appointed him, saying he was “born” for the job, is looking to use Clark’s loudmouth posturing to cover a budget-cutting agenda and score cheap points as a crime fighter. Addicted to the spotlight and apparently in need of a job, Clark seems only too happy to oblige.

“There will be an instant revolution in and at this youth house,” Clark announced with typical humility. Another cheesy movie sequel is more likely.

Maybe, Lean Harder on Me?

Stan Karp teaches English and journalism in Paterson, NJ, and is a Rethinking Schools editorial associate.