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Teaching Is G.R.E.A.T.! Leesburg Police Finishing First Year of Gang Resistance Program

May 20, 2005—None of the 38 Simpson Middle School students looked like a potential gang member. Even the girl with the red streak of hair seemed more interested in playing guitar than joining some violent crime organization whose members wear cool clothes. The boy with the drumsticks just wanted to tap on his desk and has probably never seen a gang member.

Leesburg police officers Chris Tidmore and William Costanzo tell people that not one of the students is a prospective gang member, but that is not the point of Gang Resistance Education And Training, known as G.R.E.A.T.

"I'm in a classroom with kids who know their first experience with a police officer is positive and not [negative] as if I were to pull them over," Costanzo said.

Both officers, who are also school resource officers, teach G.R.E.A.T. for the Leesburg Police Department and Loudoun County Public Schools. They received federal and state training amounting to 40 hours of class time to teach the program. The G.R.E.A.T. Program is a 13-week course for all sixth graders. The police department has almost completed its first year of teaching the program to all middle school students at Harper Park, Smart's Mill, and Simpson.

G.R.E.A.T. is a curriculum-based program aimed at teaching students skills to help them avoid gangs, violence, and drugs.

On May 2, many sixth graders present at Tidmore's first class asked him if his course was D.A.R.E.—the drug-abuse prevention courses sheriff's deputies currently teach in schools. Tidmore said the two programs do have a common goal that is to help the young students make positive life choices.

Realizing that police officers are not school teachers, both acknowledged that presenting the course materials to students is a challenging job. Tidmore's first lesson involved students working in groups to associate different words with drugs, violence, and crime. The students were asked to take their words—drive-by, pressure, crack, money, and dropout—and place them under the category—drug abuse, gangs, violence, and crime—the students thought fit best. Where the students place the words leads to a classroom discussion on how the groups came to their conclusions. Unsure of what kind of discussion would occur, Costanzo said he removed one word, "rape," from the choices.

"I took it out," he said. "I just didn't want to go through that."

The impressions made on the students are different. In Tidmore's class, one group of girls gossiped a lot; one table had a lot of interest in Tidmore's SWAT team experience; and some wondered why police officers do not shoot people in the leg.

Before class, Tidmore shared that he enjoys working with young people, and three years ago he chose to be a school resource officer. He answered with ease tough questions, such as the one about how police use deadly force.

"This is a great program from what I have seen so far," he said. "I think it teaches the kids skills I think they are missing."

The G.R.E.A.T. Program started in 1991 with funding from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. It is now taught in 1,400 communities and is evaluated regularly through research. Tidmore first tells the students the ground rules: treat everyone with respect; raise hands to answer questions; wait your turn to speak and wait for others to answer; and no use of personal references.

One of the themes of the course is group discussion. Tidmore said the program often has students performing skits in which they improvise a reaction to a situation, such as a gang recruiting problem. But, his first class lesson plan was often interrupted by some talkative student.

Costanzo said that teaching the classes will run smoother if the officer builds a rapport with the students. With nearly a year of teaching under his belt, Costanzo said other than the word association lesson dilemma, he believes he was able to make a difference in how the students will react to certain situations. When he is out and about in public, some of his students will point him out and introduce him to their parents—a sign that Costanzo said is proof to him the program is working.

Listening to the students in his classes, Costanzo said he can make a definite connection to video games and violent music to young people developing criminal behavior.

"It definitely desensitizes them," he said. For example, Costanzo said the students who put the word "drive-by" under the category "gangs" chose that connection because of what they hear on rappers' albums. He specifically mentioned rapper 50 Cent, who claims to have been shot nine times in gang activity, and Snoop Dogg and his lyrically spoken connection to the Crips. And then there is a dance called "Crip Walking" that Costanzo said young students do all the time, but they do not even know that it is about a gang.

"They do it, but they do it because it looks good to them," he said.

Lou Tiano, the school system's supervisor of athletics, health, physical education, and driver's education, said that the program will have its first evaluation from teachers near the end of the school year. Once that is done, he said, administrators will be able to get a better idea of whether teachers think the program is effective.

Leesburg Police Chief Joe Price said the program was brought into Leesburg middle schools as part of U.S. Representative Frank R. Wolf's (R-VA-10) overall gang initiative. Wolf has been instrumental in getting federal funds to support anti-gang task forces and educational missions. The anti-gang initiative is in its second phase, an educational phase, Price said. He said the program provides students with skills to avoid the dangers that gangs bring.

"This program worked very effectively for us," Price said. It is one of several programs police officers teach in Leesburg, including the Class Action program. Price said that although Loudoun's neighbors are witnessing recruitment techniques in the elementary and middle schools, Leesburg is not. By working early with the sixth graders, Price said the behavioral skills are taught to them during a time when they will need them most.

"When we talk to our counterparts closer in, such as Fairfax, they are seeing gang recruitment practices in their elementary and middle schools," he said. "Sixth grade seems to be a very productive age to start exposing kids to the dangers of gang behavior."

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