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Campaign begins to 'Stop the Violence'

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

What will it take to stop the violence in Clayton County?

Lesia Johnson, founder of TOPS Youth & Family Enrichment Center on Mt. Zion Parkway, thinks it will take a preventive effort aimed at young people, and she's kicking off just such a program on Saturday.

"I want to introduce the youth to violence and peace," Johnson said, "and have them build, in their minds, what a peaceful world would look like -- and then they can become advocates for that world."

The program, called the Stop the Violence Campaign, will use pieces of real crimes to expose kids to a "murder," from the initial 911 call, to the trial, to the long-term impact the crime has on the family and the community.

The program seeks to build empathy and teach children about the damage caused by violence in the world. The second part of it will encourage young people to explore artistic outlets, such as writing and music, and encourage them to use art to imagine and promote a better, non-violent world.

At the end of May, after the first five-month campaign ends, Johnson said the group will make a CD of the students' work, called "Voices Against Violence."

"Our county really can come together, grab hands, and stop violence or reduce it significantly," said Johnson, a recent graduate of Leadership Clayton, who has run an after-school program for almost three years.

So far, the Clayton County Police Department, Mt. Zion High School, sheriff candidate, Kem Kimbrough, and the Clayton County Juvenile Court have spoken with Johnson and are looking at ways to join the Stop the Violence Campaign.

Judge Steve Teske said he has heard from many people, over the years, who have a good heart, but do not really have a potentially powerful plan to help the youths of the county. He was impressed by Johnson and is seeking to help her campaign, he said, because the program she is proposing could be successful in changing the way children think.

"Miss Johnson, I can tell you right now, she's read the research and she understands what it takes to engage kids," Teske said. "The only way to engage kids and change the way kids think is to use the behavioral model approach ... Social science researched-based programing, that's been developed in the last 40 years, shows that role playing and hands-on experiences is the most effective way to improve kids' behavior. They're being engaged and you're trying to simulate this experience to the extent that you can, without being harmful. The lecture method doesn't work. That's a fact. It doesn't' work. You need to get into their lives and you need to help them process."

Teske hopes the court will show the students in the program how a criminal trial works and the possible long-term consequences of violence for offenders, and expose the youths to victims and the families of victims, a tactic he says is key to a preventive solution.

"When the victim is sitting on the other side of the table, and that victim is breaking down about what they went through, and how it felt, and how it affected them, you're helping the youth to develop empathy. Because, without empathy, we are raising our kids to be sociopaths without feelings or remorse," the juvenile judge said.

Johnson's idea, in terms of her TOPS Youth Center, is to provide creative outlets and connect young people from her neighborhood with leaders from the community. At the youth center, there is a small recording studio, meant to draw kids in off of the street and encourage them to focus their energies into creative mediums, rather than destructive ones.

The program will begin on Saturday, Jan. 19, with a pizza party at 2739 Mt. Zion Parkway, in Jonesboro, from noon to 3 p.m.

The program will run from January until the end of school in May, and will be held weekly on Tuesdays, from 5:30 to 7 p.m., and every other Saturday.

For more information on enrolling children in the free program, or participating in the Stop the Violence Campaign, call (770) 473-4919.