RIVIERA BEACH — Taquan Patrick and David Hoens beamed with pride as they showed off their certificates from the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program Monday at Lincoln Elementary in Riviera Beach.
Taquan and David were among 72 fifth graders at the school who received diplomas for graduating from the nationwide six-week anti-gang program.
They learned about bullying, making positive choices and problem solving, taught by Officer Jennifer Diaz of the Palm Beach County school district police department.
G.R.E.A.T. offers a law enforcement-instructed curriculum that is intended to discourage delinquency, youth violence and gang membership for children. The program encourages partnerships with groups that foster a positive relationship among students, parents, communities, schools and law enforcement.
“We’re seeing an influx of all these gangs and they’re coming in at 9 years old,” said Diaz, who’s scheduled to teach the G.R.E.A.T. program at two other Riviera Beach schools; 24 other county elementary schools are slated to get the program. It’s not just inner-city kids who need gang intervention. “All schools need it. Every child needs it,” Diaz said.
Rose Anne Brown, public information officer with the Riviera Beach Police Department, said that reaching them even earlier, by second grade, could be valuable.
She agrees with some experts who say reaching them at fifth grade may be too late to help them.
“At second grade, they’re seeing violence on TV. They’re seeing others glamorize violence. We believe we can see it start even in second grade,” Brown said. “The earlier you bring positive interaction between students and law enforcement, the less likely the student is to become a victim or a perpetrator.”
Lincoln Elementary, which is 91 percent black, is located in a predominantly black city whose officials say they are striving to shed its crime reputation.
“I’m glad the program exists,” said Riviera Beach Councilman Terence “T.D.” Davis, who gave the graduation address at the ceremony. “It develops a great leadership quality and, if you can catch them before middle school, that’s important. Otherwise, [violence] could become a lifestyle.”
Brown said gangs are not so much the problem in Riviera Beach, though there is youth violence. Nonetheless, she said, the city’s goal is to keep the kids from being a victim or a perpetrator.
Gang activity in South Florida is nowhere near the level in places such as Southern California, Diaz said “gang violence is absolutely a problem.”
Palm Beach County has some 7,000
gang members in more than 160 gangs, according to a Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office (BSO) data sheet.
The Gang Unit of the Broward Sheriff’s Office reports 290 documented gangs in the county. Gang-related violence has held steady in Broward over the last several years, according to BSO’s media relations department. The G.R.E.A.T. program operates in 31 elementary schools and nine middle schools in Broward.
Miami-Dade County’s gang membership is among the highest in the Southeast,
with Miami having the seventh largest gang population in the America. Specific details were not immediately available.
There isn’t just one answer to the violence, said Riviera Beach Police Chief Clarence Williams III. His comment came following a shooting two years ago at a Sweet 16 birthday party at Newcomb Hall in Riviera Beach, which left two teens dead.
Williams said the answer lies in initiatives in areas such as employment, education, health, social service and criminal justice. An organization called the
Commission on Social Justice was formed after the violence at the Sweet 16 party.
Lincoln Elementary Principal Tracy Sims said her students and their families face many challenges and helping them requires a multi-pronged approach to keeping students focused and out of trouble. That’s why, she said, she brought the G.R.E.A.T. program to her school. But she has coupled it with several other programs aimed at bringing students, parents, community and elected officials together for the betterment of her students.
To help deal with the challenges facing the adults, Sims created a Parent’s Academy, which shows them how to help their children with math and reading. They also learn computer skills and are offered networking opportunities, as well.
“Our parents are empowered by being able to build their social and professional advancement,” Sims said.
Lincoln Elementary has also partnered with the Literacy Coalition and there is also a Big Brothers, Big Sisters branch with the theme “Think Big.” Under this program, Lincoln students partner with nearby Suncoast High School, one of the top high schools in the nation.
A “Glamour Girls” program teaches girls etiquette and ethics and a “Second Chance Ambassadors” exists for boys.
In addition, Lincoln is a “Peace” school that focuses on non-violence daily and, particularly on Wednesdays, when all students wear the peace symbol.
“I live and breathe these children and I understand what they’re facing,” Sims said. “I was the one in the house who had to be the difference-maker in my family. I’m trying to be a change agent in our community.
“Our students’ success is our success. Gangs are just a small community. If we can get our kids to understand the consequences of their actions, they’ll make better choices.”