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Youths Get Tips to Resist Gang Life

In her final project, Alexa Spinelli recounted a drive-by shooting on her Central Islip block, and the stereotypes she and other students confront daily. "There are people who think, because I am from Central Islip, that I will never amount to anything other than a gang member," she wrote in her essay, which was commended yesterday at a graduation ceremony at Ralph Reed Middle School for students in a three-month gang-prevention training program. "Well, I guess I will just have to prove them wrong." Spinelli, a seventh-grader, was one of 250 students to complete the Suffolk Sheriff Department's Gang Resistance Education and Training program, part of a national effort to steer children away from gangs, violence and drugs.

The program started in Arizona in 1991 and is now nationwide. It was instituted in Suffolk this year with a pilot program in Bellport. It is separate from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, which is scheduled to end next month. Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer has said the program did not reduce drug use, and eliminating it will save the department more than $1 million a year in police salaries.

Deputy Sheriff Jacob Gross, one of two officers in the gang-resistance program at the middle school, said the program goes beyond drug-abuse education to help students avoid crime, gangs and bullying. Gross said middle-school students are at a crucial moment: already facing pressure, but young enough for a mentor to guide them toward graduation, college and a career. "You're going to try your best to save everyone," Gross said. Gross and Deputy Sheriff Thomas Indence guide students through a lesson book, skits and role playing that allows them to learn and test skills - for example, various ways of how to say no. Principal Chris Brown said he had hoped the initiative would improve graduation and attendance rates and reduce some students' propensity to resolve conflicts with violence.

Last year, the school's attendance rate was about 92 percent a day, he said. So far this school year, attendance has risen to 96.5 percent. Spinelli, who wants to be a teacher, said in her essay she hopes to stop kids from joining gangs. "I know that anyone can do anything," Spinelli wrote, "as long as they work hard and believe in themselves."

For more on Suffolk County’s GREAT Program, click here.

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