Officer Leon Saddler stood by the front door of the middle school, observing the chattering students pouring in at the start of the school day.
“Conversations,” he said. “If the kids aren’t talking, then you know something ain’t right.”
Talking with the students is just one way that the school resource officer at Danforth Middle School gauges the kids’ mood every morning and then monitors them throughout the school day. As in any middle school, Saddler said, he has his hands full keeping exuberant pre-adolescents in line. As a minority officer who grew up in the same neighborhood as most of his students, he knows how crucial middle school can be in determining which students succeed and which ones don’t.
As a native of Syracuse’s South Side, he says that he once was in his students’ shoes.
“I didn’t have a silver spoon in my mouth growing up,” he said. “I feel a connection with these kids. I can really feel what I’m doing with these kids.”
The school principal, Patricia Clark, said many of the kids at Danforth particularly relate to Saddler because he is an African-American man.
“He serves as a positive role model for these kids,” she said. “He’s somebody who grew up here, became successful, and came back to help others do the same.”
Saddler works in a school district with an alarmingly high dropout rate for minorities: 57 percent of African-Americans in the Syracuse City School District fail to finish high school. Danforth, which is 85 percent black, feeds into Corcoran High School, one of the four city high schools.
Keeping middle school students at Danforth on the “straight and narrow,” as Saddler says, can be challenging at times, but he stays light-hearted. He laughs and jokes with the kids and offers them packets of Welch’s fruit snacks from his seemingly endless supply when they stop by his office for a chat.
“If I can help at least one kid in this school be successful, I’m happy,” he said.