Making school a safer place for all

LHS grad Jerome Cohen
patrols his alma mater,
interacts with students

Staff Writer

LHS grad Jerome Cohen
patrols his alma mater,
interacts with students
Staff Writer

CHRIS KELLY staff Police Officer Jerome Cohen, who is stationed at Lakewood High School as a representative of the Cops in Schools program, presents Danielle Appenzeller, 16, with a flower in recognition of her honor roll accomplishments.CHRIS KELLY staff Police Officer Jerome Cohen, who is stationed at Lakewood High School as a representative of the Cops in Schools program, presents Danielle Appenzeller, 16, with a flower in recognition of her honor roll accomplishments.

At 6 feet 2 inches tall and 285 pounds, Lakewood police officer Jerome Cohen is an imposing man. However, his stature in the community is not a result of his size, according to William T. Andersen, principal of Lakewood High School, where Cohen, 39, was assigned as the district’s first school resource officer.

"Officer Cohen is perfect for the job because he’s not just a policeman," said Andersen. "He’ll talk to kids, answer their questions, try to solve their problems. He’s a reassuring presence for teachers, the kids — everybody."

Cohen is the first of two officers handpicked to be trained at township expense and to begin work in the high school in April. Officer Peter LaRosa, the other officer selected for the program, is currently serving a tour of duty in Iraq.

Township Committeeman Charles Cun-liffe, the Township Committee’s liaison to the school district, said Cohen was the ideal choice to be a resource officer.

"He’s a nice young man and he presents an extremely professional [demeanor]," said Cunliffe. "He’s someone who is from Lakewood. I think that’s someone [students can relate to]."

Cunliffe said Public Safety Director Wayne Yhost decided to assign police officers to the town’s public high school after conducting a review of the phone calls made to the police requesting help there.

Although Cohen has only been on the job for a month, he has already had a profound effect in reducing crime on school grounds, said police spokesman Capt. Rob Lawson.

"In just [his first] two weeks, Jerome made several arrests involving marijuana, as well as the arrest of a student for aggravated assault," said Lawson. "[Before he was assigned to the school], assaults were up. There was fighting in the high school, arson, stabbings, aggravated assault [and] students coming in with weapons and drugs. These were all situations that Officer Cohen [could] handle. However, students can also seek out Officer Cohen for other matters."

Cohen, a 1984 graduate of Lakewood High School, said he wanted to be a policeman since he was a boy. The road toward fulfillment of that dream did not run a straight path. He said it took him 10 years to come on board as a police officer in Lakewood because of a hiring freeze and a knee injury.

Instead, Cohen enlisted in the military after graduation and served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm from 1991-92. Following his military service, Cohen took employment from 1998 until 2001 as a corrections officer at the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe Township, Middlesex County. While there, he established a bond with the incarcerated juveniles. Cohen said at least one of them went on to get a job. The boy thanked Cohen later. His appreciation was not forgotten by the aspiring police officer.

"You go through so many boys, [but] if one could do well, maybe I can do the same thing here," he said.

Cohen’s superiors in the Lakewood Police Department and the members of the Township Committee appear to share that belief.

That is not what students thought at first, according to Cohen.

"At first they kept their distance," he said. "Now they call me Officer J."

The opportunity to win students’ trust came early in Cohen’s assignment at the high school. The first day, he said, he arrested four students. They were taken in handcuffs down to the police station.

"The word is out that I’m here and this is a safe place to be," said Cohen.

The officer said his busiest time of the day is during the students’ lunch periods. Walking through the high school’s hallways, Cohen warmly greets students with his trademark phrase, "Officers need love, too." They respond with a smile as they stop to discuss their concerns with him. Two students told a reporter why they feel so comfortable discussing their problems and hopes for the future with Cohen.

"I heard he offers career counseling and I want that," said senior Saleema Smith, who said she hopes to become a social worker. "I feel a lot safer with an officer here. There are no metal detectors and people come to school with knives."

The reduction in aggressive be­havior among students was evident to senior Lisa Perez.

"There aren’t as many fights" since Cohen arrived at the school, she said.

When asked if she felt safer as a result, Perez said she did.

Senior Natasha Olden defended Cohen’s arrest of several students.

"He’s just trying to do his job," she said.

Cohen’s responsibilities include more than just taking those who are disturbing the peace into cus­tody. He provides career advise­ment, referral sources for date rape and chemical dependency, and counseling. Cohen said that in most cases he provides information on a confidential basis. The exception would be crimes such as rape. In those instances, the officer said he must report the crime.

In the fall, Cohen said he would teach a class on the dangers of drugs.

His expertise was gained after taking an 80-hour comprehensive program that prepares officers to be assigned on school grounds. Courses of instruction include juve­nile law, crime prevention and substance abuse.

Cunliffe said the township had applied for a grant under the Cops in Schools program, but that the committee had decided not to wait for funding before assigning offi­cers to public schools in the district.

"Our hope, if given the grant, is to ultimately have two officers in the high school and two in the middle school," Cunliffe said. "We have looked at other districts (that received grants to implement) the Cops in Schools program. (However), we have to … craft a program suited to our own unique needs in Lakewood," he said.

In the meantime, Cohen has used the limited time he has before summer recess to connect with the students, staff and teachers at the high school.

"It’s a long time coming and he’ll be an asset to the school and the community," said Joseph Paradise, the high school’s assistant principal, who will be retiring. "He’s a former student and you can’t get much better than that."

Cohen is the father of three sons. His wife, Georgia, is expecting their fourth child. However, he has embraced the students at the high school as he would a member of his own family.

"I have adopted just about ev­eryone as my niece and nephew," Cohen said. "I like to think of them as my kids. My instructor told us we would meet some resistance, but … I think this is a good fit between the Lakewood Board of Education, the police department and our township."