06/11/06 — Breaking gangs' grip

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Breaking gangs' grip

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 11, 2006 2:08 AM

Steering children away from the dangers of gang life can be a daunting task. Goldsboro police Officer Willie Thomas said he is up for the challenge.

This fall, more than 800 seventh-graders will attend a new gang awareness class -- LIFE -- designed by members of the Goldsboro Police Department.

Chief Tim Bell said the class has been in the design phase for months and will cover drugs, violence and anger management. On March 20, he received approval from Goldsboro City Council to pitch the idea to Wayne County Public School officials.

Bell said seventh grade is the perfect time to introduce children to the dangers involved with gang life.

"Seventh grade is a good time," he said. "They're really starting to feel peer pressure at that point."

And they are beginning to make important life choices, too, he added.

"What you do as a kid is going to affect you for the rest of your life," Bell said. "So we're going to push staying in school and making good grades. We want them to start looking into the future."

The class will involve roundtable discussions and multiple presentations from officers, Thomas said. But the most important part, he added, is showing the children how wonderful life can be.

"I will explain to them that life is so important," Thomas said.

Bell believes Thomas is the perfect role model for Goldsboro children since he has been the leader of Drug Abuse Resistance Education classes for the last 12 years.

"Willie is an excellent role model for these kids," Bell said. "He can get their attention, and they respect him."

Still, neither the class, nor Thomas, can turn every child away from the lures of gang life, he added.

"Children are going to find things to do," Bell said. "But are the parents going to push them in a positive or negative direction? There has to be a positive influence to keep children occupied."

Church groups, mentors and sports teams can also provide help, he said.

Thomas said he will steer children away from negative influences by pointing out aspects of daily life that give them bad ideas.

"We're going to hit about drugs and violence," he said. "And we are also going to hit anger management and music. Drugs and gangs and music go together like a trio."

Thomas added he hopes his class will result in a few less youths joining these neighborhood groups, but he knows six weeks won't stop everyone.

"This is not the savior program," he said. "But the main thing is we want to make them aware. We hope this works."

And so, he will end his LIFE classes the same way he ends ones he teaches in the D.A.R.E. curriculum -- with the number 44 -- the number of youths currently serving life sentences in North Carolina Detention Centers.

"I'll tell them these kids will never get to go to McDonald's again," Thomas said. "They'll never walk into the prom."

He hopes that will be enough to get them to think twice before they succumb to peer pressure.