P.J. Gregory plays the saxophone at Einstein High School in Kensington, where he works as a school resource officer. Photo by Skip Brown.
Wearing his police uniform, complete with a bulletproof vest and multiple radios, Officer P.J. Gregory pulls his tenor saxophone out of its case and softens a reed in his mouth. He had to deal with a last-minute emergency, so he’s late to the 1:45 p.m. jazz ensemble class at Albert Einstein High School. A full head taller than most of the other musicians, Gregory opens his folder and leans over to the young girl seated next to him to see where the band left off.
From jamming in class to playing the national anthem at basketball games to performing alongside students at their concerts, the 6-foot-1-inch school resource officer uses music to make himself approachable to students as he tries to keep them on track.
“It’s all about relationships,” says Gregory, 53, referring to his job at the public school in Kensington, where he mediates with kids after fights, handles occasional drug issues and works to build trust with students.
During Gregory’s 23 years as a Montgomery County police officer, he has had various assignments in Bethesda, Germantown, Wheaton and Rockville, including a stint at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg. Gregory was in a serious motorcycle accident while on duty in 2012. He says he had a “come-to-Jesus moment” in the hospital and decided to finish his career working in the schools because he wanted to make a difference in kids’ lives.
Gregory, the son of a D.C. police officer, grew up in Prince George’s County, first picked up a saxophone in the early 1990s, and now plays with the praise band at his church. He mostly played tunes by ear, but wanted to learn how to read music. So in the fall of 2016, Gregory asked if he could sit in on a class and show the kids that an “old dude” could try new things.
“He gives us advice and asks for our advice,” says Tyler Wilson, a senior saxophone player at Einstein who credits Gregory, a talented improviser, with teaching him how to do more complex solos, improving his dynamics and helping him become a more confident musician. Wilson says he’s also gained respect for Gregory as a person: “I’m able to see how passionate he is about this job and about learning in general.”
In the hallway between classes on a January afternoon, Gregory gives students fist bumps and high-fives, and says hello as they pass. One girl he encounters asks to talk to him. Gregory says he “read the riot act” to her earlier in the week after she’d been in a fight. Today, he shows a softer side. “You need to take care of yourself. Let it go,” he says. “You need to focus on your grades.” Gregory, a father of three, tells the girl he is treating her as he would his own and wants her to do well. He gives her a hug and tells her to call if she needs him.
“He knows kids. He talks to kids,” Einstein Principal James Fernandez says of Gregory, who has been at the 1,840-student school for five years. “He’s not afraid to take action. He’s here to be seen as a representative of the law, but at the same time they see him as a human being and another adult.”
Gregory says he tries to get past the rough exterior of students to see their promise. “I’m mindful this is not the end product,” he says of the teenagers he encounters. “You never know the environment they are coming from.” When Gregory runs into former students, he says he typically gets one of two reactions: “Thank you” or “I should have listened.”