SHERIFF, DEPUTIES PREPARE TO TAKE ANTI-GANG MESSAGE TO COUNTY’S 7TH GRADERS

SHERIFF, DEPUTIES PREPARE TO TAKE ANTI-GANG MESSAGE TO COUNTY’S 7TH GRADERS

When Doña Ana County Sheriff Juan Hernandez walks fully uniformed into a classroom filled with seventh-graders, he almost always gets their undivided attention. He’ll be using that leverage this year to teach a simple lesson: Gang life is a dead-end road.

Using a $41,400 grant from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Hernandez and four of his deputies will take the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) program to several schools in rural Doña Ana County. Hernandez, a former Las Cruces Police officer, said the LCPD coordinates the program in Las Cruces schools, but schools in the county have never before been given the opportunity to participate.

The current grant, Hernandez said, will allow the Sheriff’s Department to offer the classes through January of 2000, with the expectation of continuing it for as long as Congress continues to allocate the grant funding.

Hernandez said his experience with the GREAT program in the Las Cruces Public Schools was overwhelmingly positive and that he is eager to expose youngsters in other area schools to what he calls “the ugly truth about gang membership.”

Hernandez said the GREAT program puts uniformed officers into the participating schools for a nine-week program designed to reach all the seventh graders in the school. Each class lasts one hour, and the officer stays in the school one day each week to insure that all the seventh graders receive the training.

During the course of the program, the students receive lessons in: the definition and identity of a gang; how gangs commit crimes and what it means to the victims; how gangs exploit cultural sensitivity and exacerbate prejudice; methods of conflict resolution; recognizing and meeting basic needs without victimizing others; the impact of gangs on neighborhoods in terms of increased crime and drug abuse; personal responsibility; and goal setting.

Hernandez said that by the end of the program, most seventh graders have a much better awareness of the dangers of gang membership and the harm that gangs bring to a community.

“You can just watch their eyes light up as this stuff kicks in for them,” Hernandez said. “They start to realize how much better their neighborhoods can be and what they can do to resist gangs and help law enforcement officers protect families and neighborhoods.”

Hernandez said the program is highly interactive, with the students being placed in role-playing situations that let them better understand the viewpoints of parents, community leaders, law enforcement officers, property owners and other victims of gangs.

“When you sit them down and ask them to play the part of a parent whose kid is getting out of control, they start to understand the adult point of view better,” Hernandez said. “And when you ask them to play the role of someone whose property has been vandalized and destroyed, they begin to understand the anger that law-abiding citizens feel when they are victimized by gangs. It makes a very clear impression that seems to last for many of these kids.”

Hernandez said using deputies’ time to teach the course is “an investment in the community.”

“This is an extension of the community-policing concept,” he said. “We put these deputies and myself into the classrooms and we interact with these students in a very close manner. They come to see us as allies in the effort to keep their neighborhoods drug-free and crime-free, and they come to know that we can be trusted to help them when they encounter lawlessness.”