By Curt Yeomans
Riverdale Middle School seventh-graders, Karrington Harris, Devonte Battle and Raheem Adams, said they wanted to join gangs last year, because they thought it would make them "cool" in the eyes of their peers.
They said they had a different opinion after completing the 13-week Gang Resistance Education And Training (G.R.E.A.T.) Program with a graduation ceremony that was held Wednesday in their school's cafeteria. The youths said they now want to focus on doing well in their classes, graduating from high school, and going on to college.
Harris, Battle and Adams said they decided not to join gangs, because of the program. "It taught me being in a gang was not all fun and jokes," Harris said. "I just wanted to be able to fit in, but I thought about my actions, and decided it wouldn't be in my best interests to join a gang."
"If you join a gang, it will put you in a tough spot you wouldn't want to be in," Battle said.
"I found out gang-banging can result in you going to jail for a long time," Adams said.
The G.R.E.A.T. Program is an 18-year-old national initiative, overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, which uses trained local law enforcement officers to teach elementary and middle school students about the dangers of joining gangs.
At Riverdale Middle School's G.R.E.A.T. Program graduation, 257 seventh-graders listened as school system Director of School Safety John Walker, Riverdale Police Chief Samuel Patterson and Clayton County Juvenile Court Chief of Staff Adolphus Graves offered praise for the youths for completing the program.
Walker said the Riverdale, Forest Park and Clayton County Police departments, as well as the Clayton County Sheriff's Office taught the G.R.E.A.T. Program to a total of more than 2,000 students this spring. Those students are spread out across the school system's 14 middle schools and several elementary schools in Riverdale and Forest Park, Walker said.
Patterson said Riverdale Middle School was the first Clayton County school to implement the program, when it came to the school four years ago. The G.R.E.A.T. classes at the school have always been taught by officers from the Riverdale Police Department, said Riverdale Middle School Assistant Principal Letitia Lewis, who oversees the program at her school.
"We think it's important to educate children about the dangers of joining a gang as early as possible," Patterson said. "If we can encourage young people to make better decisions through this program, then we have done something to make our community better."
Patterson also said there are approximately 10 nation-wide gangs, and roughly 25 more smaller, local gangs set up in Riverdale. The police chief said the smaller gangs, which he called "wannabe gangs," are perhaps more dangerous than the nation-wide gangs, like the "Bloods" and the "Crips."
"They're not structured very well, like the national gangs are," Patterson said.
Patterson also said the children, who are often the most likely to join gangs, are "latch key kids," who come from homes where the parents are often not at home because they are at work.
"Typically, the children who are not getting a lot of love at home are often those kids who are susceptible to pressure to join a gang," Patterson said. "We recommend they participate in team activities, like a football, baseball, basketball or cheerleading team, so they do have a reason to work toward a positive goal [in life]."
Lewis said adults sometimes underestimate how much children understand the world they live in, and praised the G.R.E.A.T. Program for teaching youths why it is important to resist peer pressure to join a gang. "It is as important as a lifesaver is to a drowning person," Lewis said. "They [children] are constantly being pummeled and drowned by what's going on in the streets."
Riverdale Middle School seventh-grader, Alexis Golden, 13, said she learned through the program that the choices she makes can mean the difference between life and death, or a life of freedom and a life of imprisonment.
"Gangs are no fun, and they can cause your death," Golden said. "I learned if you join a gang, you will end up behind bars."