One Man's Battle To Keep Kids In School A Truant Officer In Camden, Once A Young Rebel Himself, Tries To Get Teens Off The Streets And Back Into The Classroom. For A 15-year-old Girl, His Outreach Simply Isn't Enough.

Posted: October 08, 1995

Every day, hundreds of Camden kids hit the streets instead of the books.

They stroll out of Camden school gates, past security guards who look the other way. They huddle against graffiti-covered walls and play pick-up hoops in the park. They hustle into beaten-up cars, young girls barely in their teens picked up by boyfriends already hitting 20.

But every school day, six truant officers employed by the Camden Board of Education hit the streets, too - their eyes scanning sidewalks, rowhouses, parks, and bus stops.

Eddie Lopez is one of those officers.

Always on the lookout.

Always checking the faces they pass. Always checking for textbooks, for knapsacks, for kids they've picked up before.

The truant officers are part of a safety net, meant to catch children who are in danger of falling into trouble. But, with an average of 30 children brought in every day, and dozens more who escape the officers' capture, there isn't enough net to catch them all.

Aniesha was one of the kids who slipped through.

*

Where was that bus?

It was already past noon, and Aniesha was in a hurry. She and her cousin Vanessa needed to catch the 404 to downtown Camden. From there, a window- shopping session at Strawbridge & Clothier in Center City was just a quick PATCO ride away.

Hurry up, she willed silently.

Every minute the two seventh-graders lingered in North Camden, a few blocks

from school, meant a truant officer could spot them and pick them up. It meant Aniesha, already on probation for cutting a Philadelphia girl's face in a fight, could get locked up if she got caught.

But the tiny, ponytailed 15-year-old, who wore baggy, oversize jeans and a drab jacket swamping her thin 4-foot-10 frame, didn't care. School was boring. She hadn't seen her real father since she was 6 months old. In September of last year, state social workers took her from her mother and sent her to live with an aunt. And, in April, one of her cousins died.

Who could go to school with so much other stuff going on?

So, for Aniesha and Vanessa, this had become routine. Cut school, and head to the stores in Philadelphia.

But on one late, sunny April day, Aniesha's little brother tagged along, too. It was Carlos' first time at playing hooky.

The three were huddled together on the curb outside the North Camden police substation, balancing school workbooks on their knees. Then, they heard the screech of brakes.

Their heads shot up in time to see an old Ford LTD in the middle of an illegal U-turn. A white car driving east on State Street threatened to slice the other car in two, missing by inches.

Two seconds later, the LTD rumbled to a stop at Aniesha's feet. The doors flew open. Eddie Lopez and his partner, Betty Ann Suarez, jumped out.

Lopez, a mustached man with a slight hunch to his shoulders, towered over the three errant students. The sun glinted off the silver badge dangling from a chain around his neck.

"How come you're not in school?" Lopez demanded in a deep, hoarse voice.

Uh-oh, thought Aniesha. A truant officer.

Eddie Lopez, a soft-spoken, born-again Christian, knows the kids he finds on the streets of Camden.

He knows the cocky teenage girls who suck their teeth and roll their eyes with contempt for authority. They are the ones he runs into most often.

He knows the hurt little boy who stood on a corner crying because the soles of his sneakers were mottled with holes. His mother, the child told Lopez, had sold his new ones to score some crack.

He knows the humiliated 7-year-old who ran out of school after his classmates taunted him for wearing a girl's blouse. He was too poor to afford another top.

He knows how they feel, how lonely and luckless it can be to grow up in the poverty of Camden. He knows how tempting the lure of the streets can be. He knows how scary an empty house and a broken home can be.

Eddie Lopez knows because he comes from just such a place.

His parents divorced when he was young, and Lopez spent much of his childhood shuttling himself around the streets of blighted South Bronx.

Soon, however, the solitude of childhood grew into teenage rebellion. He dabbled with cocaine and pot. He cut school. He hung out on corners.

Only one thing kept Lopez from getting trapped by the streets: a concerned neighbor who became his surrogate father.

"I know what these kids go through. I feel for them," says Lopez, who became a truant officer after his brother was killed in a drive-by shooting. Edgardo had been on the truant patrol. Eddie Lopez, who had been earning $45,000 a year as an appliance-store manager, stepped in and took his brother's place. His salary dropped to $14,500 a year.

"The Lord wanted me to work with kids. That's where the Lord was leading me. To these kids, God is a god sitting on a throne with a bat ready to beat them over the head. I want to teach them that God is a god of love," says Lopez, who is married and the father of three.

"Sometimes it's hard to win their trust. But if they see you're still there, week after week, they start confiding. After a while, they start opening doors."

Aniesha smiled up at Eddie Lopez, but behind her tousled chestnut bangs, her eyes were startled.

Do I ditch my brother and run? Do I stay and lie? Do I bluff my way through?

She was ready to bolt. She had done it before. But she glanced at her little brother. Beneath his man-size plaid jacket, Carlos was shaking.

Aniesha sized up Lopez and decided to bluff. "We're supposed to go to the doctor's with my mom," Aniesha rattled off. "My mom's at her boyfriend's house now. In South Camden. That's where we're supposed to meet her. We're catching a bus to the transportation center. We take the 404."

Eddie Lopez and Betty Ann Suarez had heard it all before. The kids didn't have a pass. That made them illegal.

In the car.

Oh, man! thought Aniesha. I don't need this.

The three students piled into the back seat of Lopez's LTD and headed for the district truancy office.

"At least we got a ride," Aniesha boasted.

"You know what I'm saying, at least we don't have to buy bus tickets," Carlos parried.

They rode past the tree-lined streets of East Camden, past the brick rowhouses. They rolled past the massive stone exterior of Camden High School and spied some other would-be truants. But Eddie Lopez kept going. He already had a full load.

All the while, Aniesha's mind was racing:

What do I do now? What lie can I say? I can give a fake name. Maybe I can tell them I go to a different school.

Man, my little brother! What did I get him into?

When Aniesha goes to school, she gets decent grades. But last school year, she rarely bothered to go. She missed 56 days.

She likes math and social studies. In math, she says, "you can always find an answer. No matter what."

In Aniesha's short life, that hasn't always been the case. The middle child of nine, she has been bouncing from one place to another almost as long as she can remember. She was born in Newark and moved to Camden about eight years ago. For awhile, she moved to North Carolina with her grandmother.

Her father still lives in Newark. But "he doesn't want anything to do with me," she says, narrowing her eyes. "It's OK. I don't love him or anything."

One older brother is in jail.

Aniesha scrunches her face, fiddling with the gold rings arrayed on eight of her fingers. Last year, those rings got her into big trouble.

She got into a fist fight with some girls from Philadelphia. One girl ended up with a deep gash in her face. Aniesha says one of her rings was broken and

cut the girl's face.

Aniesha ended up spending the night in Philadelphia's Youth Detention Center. "I wasn't scared," Aniesha brags, then backtracks. "No, I'm lying. I was scared."

Aniesha went before a judge and was placed on probation until this

December. So she couldn't afford to get in trouble for anything. But that didn't keep her from cutting class last term.

"My mind's not on school," Aniesha said.

The LTD pulled up to a low, yellow brick building. A small paper sign on a metal door flapped in the breeze. The door led to the truancy office.

Lopez warned: "You're going to see a lady named Brenda Jones. Let me give you the rundown on her. I don't want you sucking teeth and rolling eyes. If you get big and bad, we'll take you to juvenile."

Aniesha, Vanessa and Carlos filed behind Betty Ann Suarez; Lopez kept up guard in the rear.

Inside the office, Lopez shouted out the time and location of his team's collar: "12:43. Seventh and State."

Brenda Jones, who spent eight years patrolling the streets, pulled out a thick computer printout listing all Camden City students with excused absences that day and called the truants over.

Jones is well-known in the truancy department for her ability to see through any cover story. She can spot a liar, and a runaway, without even trying.

"Why aren't you in school?," Jones asked Aniesha.

"We were going to the doctor's," Aniesha maintained. "I was at the bus stop to meet my mom."

"If your mom wants to do something with you, your mom is supposed to do it with you," Jones said, as she ran her eyes down the computerized sheets of names.

"It was an emergency at home. My niece was sick," Aniesha said.

Jones wasn't biting.

"You expect me to let you back home to run the streets?" Jones asked. "I won't do that. Your mom should have been with you. Just because you tell it to me doesn't mean I believe it."

Aniesha's eyes narrowed.

"You go over there," Jones said, pointing to a nearby chair. Then she turned to Carlos. "You . . . come over here."

Carlos rose slowly, carrying his books slung low in front of him. He slumped down in the chair beside Jones, shaking his head and flopping his elbow on the desktop.

"Understand this right now," Jones said. "Sit up in my chair. Get your arm off my desk. Don't get smart with me, because I'll tell them to run your smart mouth to juvenile."

Aniesha's radar went off. She knew her brother was about to get himself into deep trouble. "Just do what she says, Carlos. It's not worth it," she warned.

Five minutes later, Lopez waved three narrow slips of white paper at Suarez. The students' marching orders: The kids were going back to school.

The three truants slid into the back seat of the LTD. Vanessa leaned her head on the back of the driver's seat, her almond eyes suddenly grave.

"They're going to suspend us from school," Aniesha moaned softly to Vanessa.

"No, they won't," Lopez consoled them. "I'll talk to them because you were nice, O.K.?"

Yea, right. You won't help if you know the truth.

"If I get suspended, I'll get locked up," Aniesha grumbled. "I'm on probation."

Lopez's attention turned to Aniesha. He knew she had been lying to him all along. But now, she was starting to peel back the layers.

Maybe he could turn this one around.

Now, Aniesha was getting worried. She should have bolted at the beginning, she decided. She shouldn't have given her real name to Brenda Jones. That meant she couldn't sprint away when Lopez stopped in front of her school.

That's what she usually did. Run away before the truant officer could take her to the school office. Hide in Pyne Poynt Park, inside a crumbling old house.

"What do you do on weekends?"

Aniesha shook herself out of her reverie. Lopez was talking to her.

"Do you go to church? Do you like to go on trips?"

"I don't like trips, and I go to my own church," Aniesha answered curtly.

Lopez, looking at Aniesha's reflection in the rear-view mirror, just kept on talking. "How'd you like to go to my church? We're going to Great Adventure with kids your age. I'll give you my card. If you want to go, give me a call. Since you've been on probation, have you been doing all right?"

"Yea," said Aniesha, as she tilted her head to one side and tried to figure this guy out.

"When you got on probation, did you have to go to court? Why?"

"I got in trouble. Wrong place at the wrong time."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Nah, I don't want to talk about it."

That was it. Lopez didn't pry any further. Aniesha couldn't believe it. Maybe she could trust him.

They were back in North Camden. The LTD pulled up to a chain-link fence that circled the perimeter of Pyne Poynt School. Two security guards hovered near the side door. Aniesha lingered by the car. She wasn't ready to go inside. She was afraid of what would happen.

"Will you really talk to the guidance counselor?" she asked Lopez.

"If you're all saying what you're saying - that you're legal. I'll bat up for you," Lopez promised.

Aniesha's smile disappeared. He's not going to help me.

"Then you won't bat up for us," Aniesha said, admitting for the first time that she had lied to Lopez.

There was no doctor's appointment. No excused absence. She had never even signed into school that day.

"You're not legal?" Lopez asked, reaching into the pocket of his pink shirt and pulling out a small slip of paper. He handed it to Aniesha. "This is my card. I don't give this card to just anyone. You see my name? What is it?"

Aniesha studied the card carefully. "Eddie Lopez," she said. The card said he was a pastor, too.

Every Friday afternoon, a white van pulls up to the park across from McGraw Elementary School in East Camden. The doors open, and wonders start to emerge: a folding table, a sound system, a microphone.

Then, a rusty LTD parks alongside the van. Small, plastic toys - a basketball hoop, puzzles, dolls, balloons - are taped to the side of the car. Rap music starts pounding from the speakers.

Slowly, the children climb down from the wooden jungle gym. They slide to the ground and start running toward the activity.

"Mr. Eddie's here! Mr. Eddie's here!"

They rush toward Eddie Lopez, and fling their arms around his waist.

It's time for Lopez to do what he loves best. On Friday afternoons, he sets up a makeshift church at the park, drawing the children with games and prizes, then captivating them with stories from the Bible.

Lopez is youth pastor of Congregacion Amor de Jesucristo, a small Latino church in East Camden whose mission it is to provide a sanctuary for children.

More than half the church's congregation are children. Some come with their

families. Most come alone, picked up by the church's bus, sent by parents happy to have found a safe place for their youngsters.

Several of the congregation's teenagers met Lopez the same way Aniesha did - as truants.

Lopez says he never pushes the children to attend his church. But he always leaves the door ajar. Dozens of children have pushed it open.

"We want our church to be a haven for kids," he says. "We're not there to point fingers. We accept them the way they are."

Aniesha held onto Lopez's business card for a long time. She kept it carefully tucked away in a manila folder, mixed in with cards from the judge who put her on probation, the lawyers handling her case, and some doctors.

She wanted to call him. She really started to believe that he meant what he said. But something kept her from picking up the phone.

Then, one day, Aniesha's brother grabbed the card and ripped it into little pieces. For Aniesha, it just felt like Lopez had drifted out of her life.

She got into another fight. This time, at Rutgers University-Camden with a girl who bumped into her and didn't apologize. Aniesha's probation has now been extended to next June.

She had to go to summer school to pass seventh grade. She did, surprising even herself by not missing one day of class. She worked part-time in the school-guidance office.

She still wonders about Lopez. She even caught a glimpse of him recently. But she was too embarrassed to say hello.

Lopez said he saw Aneisha, too. But he didn't say anything to her.

This term, Aneisha promises that Lopez won't catch her cutting school. This term, she vows, she will stay out of trouble.

Lopez works patiently, extending his hand and waiting for children to grasp it. He knows that some will slip through his grip. Others will hold tight. But he won't stop trying.

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