Although the school-dismissal bell rang less than five minutes ago, a line already has formed outside the Police Athletic League's recreation center at Hillendale Elementary School.
Baltimore County Police Detective Frank Brocious opens the door and kids quickly sign in before rushing to be first to play bumper pool or video games.
"Hey, Mr. Frank! You got a haircut," observes one little girl.
Slightly embarrassed, Brocious puts his hand on top of his head and nods.
"Yeah, I did," he says.
"It looks cute!" she shouts, running off to join her friends.
A Baltimore County policeman for almost 17 years, Brocious, 38, used to work researching child abuse, child pornography and child prostitution cases.
But these days, Brocious and Officer John Copsey, 26, spend their time playing, working and talking with children who spend afternoons at the Hillendale P.A.L. -- the newest of four after-school recreation centers run by police in the county, and the only one in a working school.
The county's program linking cops, kids and classrooms has received wide praise from community and school officials. Former federal drug czar William Bennett said during a visit last year that he didn't know of a school system with a better anti-drug program in the country.
The concept behind the program is simple: Get a bunch of donated or used video games, a few pool and pingpong tables and allow kids, supervised by police officers, to play for free. P.A.L. centers also provide support for school work and avoiding drugs.
The benefits -- greater respect for police, maybe improved self-images for children from low-income neighborhoods -- can be huge, if hard to measure.
And "there's a big advantage to having a P.A.L. center on a school campus," says Joseph Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Athletic Leagues in Florida.
"Schools are always the target of vandalism, especially at night and on weekends when they're empty," he says. "This cuts down on vandalism. And kids relate to schools because they go to them every day."
Vandalism has all but disappeared at Hillendale Elementary since the P.A.L. opened there three years ago, Principal Jack Wilson says.
"What it has done is provide a safe place for kids after school who would otherwise go home to an empty house," he says. "It has proven its worth, over and over again."
As many as 140 children spend afternoons at the center on weekday afternoons, under the supervision of Brocious and Copsey. Six- to 12-year-olds have the center from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., then the center belongs to the 13- to 17-year-olds until 8:30.
Anti-drug posters hang on the walls of the center, which %J occupies a large double classroom. There's a tiny library of donated books in one corner, a vending machine in another. Balls can be signed out for basketball or volleyball games.
P.A.L.'s main attraction is the donated video games, pingpong tables, pool and bumper-pool tables -- but the center isn't all fun and games.
Children who are having trouble in school can be asked by parents or teachers to complete assignments at the Homework Club before going to P.A.L.
The club provides an opportunity for students to complete their homework, get help if they need it, and gain good study and organizational skills. More than half the children on the (x principal's honor roll last semester were members of the club.
In a room adjacent to the game room, parent helper Carol Hardaway and her assistants answer questions, check homework and keep a record of children who attend the club faithfully. Homework Club regulars are invited to a party on Fridays after school for snacks and videos, Hardaway says.
The club "helps you do your homework without distractions," explains Tiffani Bryant, 10.
Her friend, Stephanie Blackmore, 11, says she comes to the Homework Club for help with math.
"When I go home, I need help, so my mother told me to come here every day after school," she says. "I take my work very seriously."
After the girls are checked out of the club, they head over to P.A.L., where Brocious is giving instructions to several children near a video game. Copsey returns from a volleyball game in the school gym, sweating, but smiling. The room is as loud as an indoor gym itself and the noise level hasn't dropped for nearly two hours.
Brocious, a real-life Kindergarten Cop, just shrugs.
"Actually, this is sort of a quiet day," he says.
After years of working with abused and neglected children, Brocious says he enjoys helping kids avoid trouble.
"Before, I felt reactive," he says. "In this job, we take a pro-active stance, and try to work with kids before they have problems. We get to know these kids on a one-to-one basis."
"I think it has done a lot of good for the kids," agrees Maria Ruberti, president of the Parent Teachers Association at Hillendale. "It gives them a place to be after school -- and everything I have heard about it is positive."