Nearly 200 fifth-graders in North Bay Shore graduated Friday from a program aimed at preventing them from joining the gangs that police blame for multiple murders and other violence in Bay Shore and nearby Brentwood and Central Islip.
“We spoke about gangs,” Suffolk County correction officer and program instructor Michael Newman told the children in the Southwest Elementary School gym before they received their certificates and gold “Suffolk County Junior Sheriff” stickers. “Do they do anything good for you or society?”
“No!” the kids shouted.
Southwest is one of eight elementary schools in the Brentwood Union Free School District that participates in the federally funded Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program, which Sheriff Vincent DeMarco brought to Suffolk County in 2007. It began in Phoenix in 1991.
DeMarco, who posed for photos with the graduates on Friday, said the eight-week course helps children cultivate skills to resist gang pressure and stay out of bad situations before they’re at an age when gangs may try to recruit them.
The program uses role-playing, games and other techniques to teach students about how gangs harm people and about how they’ll end up in jail if they join one, said GREAT instructor and correction officer Reuben Rijos.
Erick Morales, 11, of Bay Shore, said he doesn’t ever want to associate with a gang.
“They hurt people and they do drugs, and that is not good,” he said
Cristian Escobar, 11, of Bay Shore, said the course taught him how to avoid gangs.
“If a gang [asks] me if I want to join them, I need to tell an adult so that they can help me,” he said. “I never want to join a gang because I don’t want to go to jail.”
Newman and Rijos taught the children the importance of respecting others and their communities, and of using words, not violence, to deal with anger.
“Remove yourself from the situation and…,” Newman said on Friday.
“Walk away!” several children shouted.
“Walk away until you calm down . . .,” Newman continued.
“And count to 10,” a few kids said.
GREAT has reached more than 60,000 students in Suffolk since 2007, Newman said. It is in 30 Suffolk schools, including a few middle schools, which have a different, longer curriculum than in elementary schools.
Newman said the interaction he has with the kids helps counter the sometimes-negative perception they have of police. Some have family members who have been arrested, and they associate police with taking away a loved one for what to them is an unknown reason.
“You have these students look at you in a different way,” Newman said. “Most of the time they only see you when bad things happen.”