By Joel Hall
In keeping with a model of community policing, the Clayton County Police Department is taking a more proactive role in steering at-risk teens away from criminal behaviors.
This week, the police kicked off Teens Initiating Change (TIC), a summer-long awareness-and-empowerment program for local high school students.
The program, organized by Clayton County School Resource Officers India Smith and Leon Brown, takes a handful of students through course work focusing on topics such as: conflict resolution; problem solving; understanding the law; knowing one's legal rights; public speaking; and empathy toward the victims of crime.
During the program, students will also learn about the inner workings of county government and the court system through discussions with elected officials.
Smith, founder of the TIC program, started the effort under a different name in 1998, while working as an officer for the Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department. She said the program teaches students the true costs of crime and how to constructively manage social pressures.
"When someone is the victim of a crime, there are physical injuries, emotional injuries, and financial injuries," Smith said. "Until we go through these lessons, a lot of them don't think about it. Nowadays, that peer pressure is awesome. You see kids from the best homes committing crimes, all just to fit in.
"A lot of these kids have a lot of baggage," Smith continued. "I'm very determined that these kids need help. If they understand the county more, the more they will want to participate in it and make it a better place."
During the first week of the program, students visualized what it takes to create a safe community, learned the difference between misdemeanor and felony crimes, performed skits, and created public-service announcements. Allison Person, 16, a rising senior at Riverdale High School and a participant in the program, said the program gives students a chance to have a dialogue about topics overlooked in the school curriculum.
"I think most of them [students] are turning to the wrong things because they feel like they need to be protected," Person said. "This program shows them that they don't have to walk around with gangs to feel protected.
"The good thing about the program is that they let us know the laws and our rights," she added. "It's not just about the bad things in the world ... it's actually information we can use."
Brown said the program also allows young people to develop a relationship with police officers based on trust, rather than fear.
As a child, "every time we saw police, we ran, whether it was good or bad," Brown said. "This allows them to interact with [police] in a different way. A lot of this is shocking for them. A lot of the kids have said they didn't know that police do all this for kids.
"A lot of these kids feel like if these people are burglarized, that somehow, the government will step in and help them get it back, but they won't," Brown added. "We break it down ... this is what happens when you have been victimized. We hope that these kids, when they get back to school, they can disseminate some of that information."
Adolpus Graves, chief of staff for the Clayton County Juvenile Court, believes the program will go a long way toward creating less-apathetic, more-productive youths in the county.
"Instead of telling them don't do this and don't do that, it really connects the dots for them," Graves said. "There are also so many negative stereotypes about the police. This allows them to really develop some positive relationships with police officers. This increases community relationships, which is key to community safety. I think it will definitely benefit the county."