AUBURN — A program started by the Auburn Police Department to help students who got into trouble made a difference for Clifford Griffin III.

Griffin, 18, is a member of the Edward Little High School Class of 2017 who graduated Saturday.

When he was a sophomore, Griffin said he wasn’t a good student. He joked around.

“I did not do my schoolwork,” he said. “I didn’t take it that seriously.”

One day during biology class, it was hot. He was bored. Using his iPad, he took a photo of his teacher’s buttocks and posted the photo on social media.

“I got a lot of likes,” he said.

He also got suspended for two weeks.

One week of suspension was for the inappropriate photo; the other for misuse of school property, the iPad.

Instead of being at home playing video games or hanging out on the street, Griffin was sent to what was then the new Suspension Intervention Program started by Police Chief Phil Crowell.

Suspended students are sent to the Police Activities League Center with program director Tijjani Abacha, who mentors students. The center is a place the youths go after school to play or learn. Police officers frequently drop in.

In Auburn, any suspended middle or high school student must participate in the program.

When Griffin was in the program, Abacha ran the program without the assistance of teachers. Some of his math assignments were sent to the PAL Center, but most of the schoolwork was not.

“I was pretty idle,” Griffin said, which contributed to him failing that quarter.

In the second year of the program, the Auburn School Department included an educational technician for the PAL Center in the school budget, who now helps students with schoolwork.

During his two weeks at the center, Griffin talked with Abacha about what Griffin did, his attitude about school, his future.

“He told me my actions have consequences,” Griffin said. “If you do good things, good things happen. If you do bad things, bad things happen. It helped open my eyes to what the world was like.”

He started thinking more seriously about becoming a police officer.

“Now every time I go to do something now, I ask, ‘Is this what a cop would do?’”

After his two weeks of suspension, he went back to Edward Little and worked harder. He brought his grades up to C’s. The next two years, he got A’s, B’s and a few C’s, he said.

Students who participate in the program continue to get mentoring from Abacha,  who drops in at school to check on them. Abacha said Griffin had a goal, but needed help to make his goal a reality.

Suspension should not be a reason for failing, Abacha said, it should be an opportunity “that puts you back on track, behavior and gradewise.”

He offered an example of another student who was suspended for smoking. He discovered the student was about to be homeless.

“There was stress on the kid,” he said.

With some intervention, work was done to prevent the student from being homeless, Abacha said.

Crowell and Superintendent Katy Grondin said the program provides ways for students to reflect on their actions and get help to change.

“We want students to learn how to make better choices,” Grondin said.

Schools need suspensions “as a tool to keep order in the classroom,” Crowell said. The program keeps students out of criminal trouble and on track for graduation.

While attending a Juvenile Justice Summit, Crowell learned about a similar program run by the Seattle Police Department. After researching how school suspensions “are a pipeline to the criminal justice system,” he pitched the program to the Auburn School Committee, which supported the effort.

The program is paid for with federal money, Crowell said, adding that funding is a constant challenge. The educational technician position in the school budget helped, he said.

Parents and teachers support the program, Crowell said.

“TJ (Abacha) does an amazing job,” Crowell said. “Unfortunately, many of our students who attend have housing issues, criminal issues, and basic survival needs.”

In the past three years, Abacha has worked with about 290 suspended students.  All behavior has “a root,” he said.

“Something happened at home, or something that happened at school escalated, or some don’t have encouragement to fulfill their dreams,” Abacha said.

Griffin said part of his “root” was hanging around with the wrong crowd, youths “who wanted to break into abandoned buildings, go party, do drugs.”

“If I kept up hanging with them probably I would be in jail,” he said.

This fall, he’s planning to go to Central Maine Community College to study criminal justice.

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