The city’s public school system will potentially make room in its elementary and middle school curriculum to squeeze in a promising new anti-violence and anti-gang initiative called Gang Resistance Education And Training (G.R.E.A.T.).
“It’s an evidence based and effective program that deals with both gang and violence,” explained sergeant Sean Van Leuven, a state parole board officer. Leuven said the mission of the program is to reduce youth violence, equip youngsters with the necessary skills to avoid gang membership, and develop positive relationships with law enforcement.
The sergeant explained the program as a six-week course for elementary school students, 4th and 5th graders. For middle schoolers, 7th and 8th graders, the course is twice as long, 12-weeks, said Leuven. “It’s like the old D.A.R.E. program,” added school board president Christopher Irving.
Leuven said there’s an element of the unsuccessful Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program infused into the program, but it’s more detailed and does much more than just teach “say no.” Several academic studies have proven the old program as an utter failure.
This new program though is much different. A University of Missouri study completed in 2012, suggests the program does, indeed, help prevent youths from joining gangs.
The study found that there was a 39-percent reduction in the odds of gang-joining among students who had completed the program compared to those who did not a year after the program ended. Similarly, there was a 24-percent reduction in odds of a student joining a gang four-year after the program.
The program, focused largely on gang resistance, also serves as a sort of public relations attempt by law enforcement to shape the views of children towards police. “We get our officers out into the classroom for them [students] to be able to interact, not on a law enforcement basis as in most street interactions or contacts. We basically bring it to a teaching level,” said Leuven. “The kids are able to approach our instructors. It’s a very light environment, they get to know the other end of law enforcement and not that darker connotation.”
In that light environment, instructing officers will highlight the darker aspects of street gangs and the harmful impact they have on a given community. “It’s basically the truth of gangs and violence and students role in that community,” said Leuven.
The program costs nothing to the district, everything is paid through funds from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance within the United States Department of Justice, said Leuven. But there was one condition, the district had to make a two-year commitment to run the program. “We have to come in to teach your students for a two-year period,” Leuven told the school board and the superintendent on Wednesday evening.
After the two-years, the district can decide whether it wants to continue the program or take an exit. School board members expressed their enthusiasm for the program, which is currently in place in five other New Jersey towns including Newark and Lakewood.
“It’s an excellent idea,” said Jonathan Hodges, school board member. “I think we should vote 100-percent in favor of this.”
Irving added the program was recommended by assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who represents the 35th Legislative District in the State Assembly. “I certainly think it’s a strong program and it comes highly recommended from assemblyman Wimberly who does a great deal with kids in our community,” said Irving.
Other board members asked questions. “How is this program integrated into the regular curriculum?” asked Errol Kerr. “Is it integrated into the regular curriculum or is it an after school program?”
The classroom course associated with the program is usually superimposed over social studies or another subject, answered Leuven. The course is usually an hour in duration, and the program attempts to avoid taking time away from slots students deem enjoyable like music or physical education, said the sergeant. “We do not take their gym period,” said Leuven.
“Where do they come from? Paterson Police? Local Sheriff’s Department?” asked Kenneth Simmons.
“The staff I would bring in would be officers already working in Paterson,” said Leuven. The staff would come from the state’s division of parole, who work in the locality or are familiar with the area, said the sergeant.
State-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans expressed his interest in the program. “I like what I hear,” said Evans. “I’d love to work with them.”
The program wouldn’t simply tell students to turn away from gangs and simply say no, but it teaches pupils to set goals for themselves. It teaches ways to resist pressure and resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.
“Anything that, help save lives and help kids, teach responsibility that they have to each other, to our community, I think is important,” said Irving.