CAMDEN, NJ — Clayton Gonzalez’s career as a Camden school advocate culminated roughly four years ago during one of his shifts. He was in his late 20s and it hadn’t been too long since he’d been sworn on to the police department.
“It happened right on this corner,” Gonzalez told TAPinto Camden standing in front of Veteran’s Memorial Family School.
A call came in for a young Hispanic male with a gun. Gonzalez wasn’t the first officer on the scene, but he wasn’t surprised to arrive to a somewhat tense encounter.
The department is known for its deescalation practices and prioritizing the sanctity of life, but Gonzalez says he couldn’t have imagined how pivotal his arrival that day would prove.
“I leaned over the officer to look who it was, and it was one of my former students,” Gonzalez said, referring to years he spent working at Veteran’s as a security guard and ultimately a community school coordinator. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God.’”
Changing the student’s name for his privacy, Gonzalez said “Mark” couldn’t have been older than 14 or 15 years old.
“I said, ‘Mark, what are you doing? It's Mr. Gonzalez.’ He says, ‘Mr. Gonzalez, I’m okay, just tell them to get away.’ I responded, ‘Alright, but you have to drop what you have and let me see your hands.’ He drops the gun and puts his hands out… We detained him, and it ended up being a BB-gun.”
The lightweight air guns typically shoot plastic pellets or metallic balls.
“How much more different would it have been if I didn’t have that rapport with him? That history? I can call him by his name and say you can trust me,” Gonzalez said.
That interaction is something Gonzalez, now 32, carries with him throughout all his roles.
A parent, a mentor, a detective and - starting in 2021 - one of the newest members of the Camden School Advisory Board.
“The kids call me Mr. Gonzalez. I'm not detective, I'm not officer, I'm Mr. Gonzales,” he said, laughing. “I think I'll die Mr. Gonzalez.”
Arriving from Puerto Rico
Gonzalez came to Camden with his mom from Puerto Rico in 1992. He was about five years old at the time. Even though it was a jarring shift, he says at least every summer they would return to the Caribbean island, where his father remained and ran a farm.
It gave him a good mix of city and rural life.
As a student, he went to Lanning Square before it closed, and he was sent to Pyne Poynt. After another brief stint at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, he attended Camden High School where he graduated.
How would he describe himself in those years?
“I think how my teachers would describe me….a happy kid, always dancing, into fashion, performing in shows and always running to something else,” he joked.
A sense of optimism comes natural to Gonzalez. And that remains true despite his current role as a detective - focusing on missing person’s cases and at times entering homes where he imagines it would be hard for children to strive toward a better future.
“I think that anyone who works in Camden schools, who comes into this city, you have to have a passion for it. If you don't have a passion for it, you won't last long,” Gonzalez said.
He thinks of people like Danette Sapowsky, with over 30 years in the school district as a teacher when Gonzalez worked at Veterans and now as the principal.
“We want to be here because we’re passionate about this work, especially on the school board,” he added.
That school board tenure has been so far met with a variety of topics: handling remote learning during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, expanding services for Hispanic families in the district, preparing for the opening of a new high school in the fall and the announcement that four school closures may be necessary.
Having experienced a closure as a student in the case of Lanning Square, Gonzalez says the district has improved notably when it comes to communicating these decisions and what they mean for families.
Back when he was younger families were not included as much in the process, he noted, “Whereas now…we are hosting community events to get their understanding, see what it is that they would like to see happen, or what the best rollout would be. And then coming back, and pushing out a message for everyone. At end of the day, we've got input from every part of the spectrum and that’s very important.”
As a father of three, Gonzalez views his role on the school board as positioning him to have a lasting impact on the city and the world's future leaders.
"It's not just a title. The school is where our president was made...it's where your doctor was made and that's how I think about it. We're helping to build our future nurses, lawyers, police officers and firefighters," Gonzalez said.
Part of making the district as effective it can be in that mission, he said, is building relationships with families.
"We all want to make sure we're giving students a smooth platform to transition out of high school and into their real lives," he concluded. "It's a lot, and it'll take work."