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