PATERSON, N.J. -- Joe Clark, the Reagan administration's favorite high school principal, stalks the halls of Eastside High School with a baseball bat that, in his hands at least, has become a symbol of urban education in the 1980s.
The 36-inch Louisville Slugger is meant to intimidate those who Clark calls "hooligans, parasites, miscreants, leeches and mutants." But his insistence on expelling those students by the dozens has led to a war of wills with the Paterson school board, which has brought formal charges against the principal that could lead to his suspension or firing.
The confrontation, fueled by Clark's bombastic, Jesse Jackson-style rhetoric, has generated a tidal wave of publicity for the man who is seen here as having rescued a predominantly black and Hispanic inner-city school.
Clark is traveling to Washington, D.C., Friday to discuss a possible White House job with Gary L. Bauer, President Reagan's chief domestic adviser. Clark also has won praise from Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who visited Eastside High in 1986 after Reagan sent him a Reader's Digest article about Clark.
In a hurried interview in the school cafeteria, where he wolfed down a hoagy sandwich while rap music blared in the background, Clark compared himself to Wyatt Earp trying to clean up the Wild West. He said he was unlikely to take the White House job, declaring, "I refuse to let a bunch of obdurate, rebellious, unappreciative board members run me out of this town that I've worked in so assiduously for 27 years."
Clark said the school board had no understanding "of how a school must be run . . . . Anyone who encourages welfare, handouts, leechism, goldbrickers and hangers-on is worthy of the guillotine."
"The Board of Education is not intimidated by any of this," replied Robert Rosenberg, the school board's attorney. "The time has come for even Mr. Clark to follow the rules."
At a raucous public hearing last week, the board voted 7 to 1 to bring charges of insubordination against Clark for expelling 66 students without due process. Paterson officials also brought criminal contempt charges against Clark for violating fire regulations by locking emergency exits, which Clark said was necessary to bar "hoodlums and thugs" and drug dealers from the building. The contempt charges were dropped Monday when Clark agreed to unlock the exits.
While Clark is wildly popular with most students, parents and teachers in this decaying city of 150,000, there is another, darker view of the man with the baseball bat, one best summarized in a recent Bergen Record editorial.
"Joe Clark is a demagogue of antidemocratic bent," it said. "He is a control freak who . . . runs his school like a totalitarian ministate . . . . He is contemptuous of civil authority . . . . Joe Clark likes confrontations. He can use them to drum up publicity and whip his followers into a frenzy."
Among other things, the Hackensack newspaper said that Clark fired the boys' basketball coach for failing to invite the principal to an annual dinner and that Clark maintains a "virgin club" for female students who have never had sex.
Paterson Mayor Frank X. Graves Jr. said Clark can be inflexible and "has just got to learn to compromise 10 percent."
Still, noting that many Eastside students come from broken homes and welfare families, Graves said: "He has become the model father, the disciplinarian, the guidance counselor, the person they love and respect. He's the only father about 1,000 of those kids ever had . . . . If we lose Joe Clark, we will lose that school."
On a recent morning, Clark, a ramrod-stiff former Army sergeant, patroled the halls of Eastside High with his trademark bullhorn, barking at loiterers, throwing his arm around girls and giving high-fives to the young men. He greeted many of the 3,000 students by name. He even marched into the girls' bathroom and told an aide to have it cleaned.
"Let's go, people . . . . Lemme see your ID . . . . You look tired, what time did you go to bed last night? . . . . How do you get into those pants, Felicia?" To a boy accused of stealing from another student, he said, "I saw you in church Sunday, didn't I? What good does it do, Fernando?"
Joe Clark was born in Newark, one of six children in a welfare family. He worked as a night hospital janitor to put himself through college and earned a master's degree in education at Seton Hall University.
One of Paterson's first black school administrators, Clark took over troubled Eastside High in 1982, when guns and knives were routinely confiscated from students and heroin and cocaine were sold around the corner in what was dubbed "Needle Park."
"All my teachers taught with their doors locked from the outside," vice principal Veronica Maus said. "I didn't wander any place in the school by myself." Or, in Clark's parlance, "It was a jungle, a zoo, a menagerie."
Clark suspended 300 students his first week and made others don janitors' uniforms and scrub the walls and floors. He installed a team of uniformed security guards. To bolster school pride, he began grabbing students in the cafeteria and demanding that they sing the school song.
By 1983, Clark was attracting national attention, and Reagan called him after seeing a report about him on the CBS Evening News.
Few argue with Clark's results. When he came to the school, only 39.6 percent of its freshmen passed a basic reading test; by 1985 the figure had risen to 66.7 percent. The proportion of those passing a basic math test jumped from 56.5 to 88.6 percent during the same period.
Moreover, nearly all incoming freshmen need remedial instruction. For example, while only 1.9 percent of Eastside's 1986 freshmen could pass a state math exam, 48.1 percent passed the test last April.
"He has literally transformed Eastside High School from a blackboard jungle into a citadel of excellence," said the Rev. Fred LaGarde, Clark's pastor at the Community Baptist Church of Love. "He has reinstilled pride in the students, in themselves and in the school."
His national fame is such that Warner Brothers has a producer working on a movie entitled "Crazy Joe Clark." But to the school board here, he is the only one of 33 principals who refuses to take orders.
Under New Jersey law, Rosenberg said, only the school board has the power to expel a student, and then only after an evaluation by a team of psychologists and social workers and an administrative hearing at which the student may be represented by an attorney. Clark openly defied the board in expelling the 66 students, he said, and continues to do so by keeping the 20 students who chose to return in a separate room.
Education Secretary Bennett said he told Clark to "hang in there" in a telephone call last week. He said Clark's disciplinary approach was necessary to create an environment for learning, adding that it is not unusual for such mavericks to draw flak from entrenched school bureaucracies.
"There are other heroes out there who go about it more quietly," Bennett said. "But entrepreneur principals often have to run up against the rules and challenge the rules in order to get the job done."
As Clark recites his philosophy of self-reliance amid the cafeteria clatter, it is evident why he has become a White House favorite.
In most urban schools, Clark said, "black and Hispanic kids are not learning anything of any consequence. They're inferior academically -- not because of innate inferiority, but because of a system that made them inferior by giving them things they should work for, such as a diploma.
"A diploma that black and Hispanic kids get is basically worthless, because they have no skills. No skills. They become unproductive in society. What the system is saying is, all right, go to school and just stay there and we'll give you a diploma. If you can't read and write, we'll give you welfare and rent subsidies and food stamps.
"And after that, we know you're a dumbbell, so we'll give you affirmative action, so even though some poor slob worked hard to pass the civil service test, we'll give you the job."
By contrast, Clark holds himself out as an example to his youngsters. "I got my job because I'm good," he said.