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School Effort Fights Gangs

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By KAREN FLORIN, The Day of New London

GROTON, Conn. (AP) _ Some people might think it’s cool to be in a gang, says Brian Main, a seventh-grader at West Side Middle School.

“It’s not cool,” says Main, who aspires to be an archaeologist.

On a recent Wednesday morning in Laura Johnson’s world studies classroom, 12- and 13-year-olds engaged in a friendly dialogue with Groton City patrolman Scott LeSage, who wore his uniform to class and spoke about anger management.

The lesson came out of a workbook, but LeSage, who has been the city’s youth officer for two years, strayed occasionally from the curriculum to cover other timely topics, such as the importance of having privacy controls on Facebook pages and not “friending” people you don’t know.

As part of its efforts to prevent gang violence, the Groton City Police Department sends its youth officer into the school to teach the 13-week Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program.

Created in Phoenix in 1991, G.R.E.A.T. is geared toward an age group at risk of getting involved in gangs and has reached millions of children in all 50 states.

Police Chief Bruno L. Giulini said it has helped quell youth violence and gang problems in the city.

“A few years ago it seemed like we were starting to have a problem,” he said. “What was most disturbing was that middle-school kids were getting involved.”

Giulini said that along with having a youth officer in the middle school, the department concentrated staff at the Branford Manor apartments, where there had been some gang activity.

“It’s gotten a lot better,” he said.

It doesn’t hurt that LeSage knows the students’ names, laughs at their jokes and eats with them in the lunchroom. If he encounters them on the street, or in their homes, he will have already developed a good rapport.

“I’m investigating something right now,” said LeSage, referring to a case he is working on at the police department.

“It helps to know the kids. I can look them in the eye and say, `Don’t lie to me.’ `’

Back in the classroom, students raised their hands to tell LeSage what makes them angry, including “fake” people, being harassed and people who talk behind their backs. LeSage then listed things the students could do to stay calm, like counting to 10, talking it out or walking away. He told them to practice “cooling your anger.”

“If you’re angry and you sit there and breathe in and breathe out, you’re going to bring that down,” he said.

Other G.R.E.A.T. goals include recognizing and resisting peer pressure, resolving conflicts and having empathy and social responsibility. This year, the students will decorate heart-shaped boxes, fill them with candy and deliver them to senior citizens to fulfill a community service requirement.

After class, most students gave the G.R.E.A.T. program good reviews.

“Before when there was a fight, I used to go and watch,” said Sue Ra. “Now when my friends tell me there is a fight I make an excuse.”

Gia Aubin said she has learned techniques to “get out of situations when people ask me to do things I don’t want to do.” Halle Elal said LeSage has taught her “how to stay away from drama and how you could have a lot of consequences.”

Talon Brissette said G.R.E.A.T. is fine, but it has not changed his life. “My parents make sure I don’t do anything stupid,” he said.

Teacher Laura Johnson said the students like and respect LeSage, and that the program provides students with a rare opportunity to discuss emotions. She said the Women’s Center of Southeastern Connecticut also does a program, called V.I.P., or Violence is Preventable, in the school.

“These are all skills they need to become good citizens,” Johnson said.
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Information from: The Day of New London, http://www.theday.com/

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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