City of Jennings police officer Eugene Bickley had just completed an ARCHS’ Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) class for nearly 20 students at Fairview Elementary. He was enthusiastic the students had learned something, and hoped they felt comfortable approaching all city police officers, even if it was just to exchange friendly greetings.
“The class is basically about life skills, but more specifically about being an individual, making good decisions and about not being persuaded by peer pressure,” Bickley said. “When we talk about gangs, some students start with a wall up and you then gradually start to see the wall come down. Hopefully, the students feel comfortable with officers and aren’t afraid …”
Bickley’s comments were abruptly interrupted by a student who turned the corner and ran to the officer to embrace him with a hug. It was the perfect coincidental timing of the point he was trying to get across. He just looked up and smiled with a sense of accomplishment.
ARCHS has been partnering with area schools and law enforcement agencies to provide GREAT in St. Louis County classrooms for two years. GREAT provides school-based, law enforcement officer instructed classroom curriculum. The primary objective is prevention and is intended as an immunization against delinquency, youth violence and gang membership.
Lessons focus on providing life skills to students to help them avoid delinquent behavior and violence to solve problems.
“We do have gang activity in the area, and we are trying to make sure students know to stand up as their own individual and different ways to provide outs of a situation,” Bickley said. “They need to understand that they do have choices.”
In the next six months, the GREAT partnership between ARCHS and Jennings is expected to continue educating hundreds of new students, who will participate in a graduation ceremony and receive GREAT promotional materials such as T-shirts.
“One of the biggest advantages of GREAT is getting the conversation about gangs out in the open, which is not always discussed in school,” said Leon Hite, Jennings School District Safety and Security Coordinator. “They are educated on the real story behind gangs, and rather than just saying not to join, show them why it’s not a good idea.”
While young students are targeted for recruitment in Jennings by older gang members, Hite believes students are showing positive responses to GREAT.
“The gangs are putting their information out, so we should be able to put our info out about why it’s not a good idea to join a gang,” Hite said.
Fairview Elementary fifth-grade student Royalty Knight said in addition to gang prevention, she is learning about being a good citizen.
“We learned about self control, not being violent and actually doing something when a problem or situation arises,” Knight said.
Fifth-grader Sylvan Porter said GREAT was about showing respect for yourself and others.
“You should show respect for other people, and help them out when they need it,” Porter said. “Because people show me respect, I need to make sure I show them respect back and make right choices.”
ARCHS' Vice President of Grant Management Services Kristy Kight said the GREAT partnership has been a great success, and delivers valuable information to students.
“The GREAT partnership continues to provide students with important life skills that will help them develop into productive citizens, as well as the truth about gang activity in their area that they may experience at some point,” Kight said.
ARCHS' GREAT partnership has impacted over 500 students. The Jennings School District is progressing towards the goal of servicing all accessible fourth, fifth and sixth grade students.
The partnership is funded by a United States Department of Justice grant that was secured through U.S. Sen. Christopher ‘Kit’ Bond.