Program takes aim at gangs

Published 9:56 pm Tuesday, August 11, 2009

At Lakeland High School this week, a new crop of ninth-graders is preparing for greatness.

The school is hosting its freshman transition program, and up-and-coming freshmen have spent the week hearing presentations on gangs, finding their lockers, meeting their teachers and touring the school. The program is designed to help the children get the best start possible beginning high school.

“I like the freshman transition thing,” Breyahna King said. “It works.”

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The students spent an hour and a half Tuesday morning learning about gangs. Representatives from the commonwealth’s attorney’s office and the police department came to the school to tell the students about the dangers of being in a gang.

It appeared some of them might already know first-hand.

“Does anybody know what that gun on top is?” Officer W. Shockley asked, displaying a slide with a picture on it.

About 20 students shouted “AK-47!”

They were right.

“What’s it called in the streets?” Shockley asked.

“Chopper!” a handful of students shouted.

Again, they were correct.

Shockley said it is not unusual to see middle-schoolers or even elementary school students who know what the weapon is, so he was not surprised at the number of students who knew it at the ninth-grade level.

“Lakeland is not immune to social ills,” principal Thomas Whitley said. “They trickle into the school system.”

The schools organize the freshmen transition programs to help the students make conscious decisions for positive choices, Whitley added.

“We hope to have them compete in the global market,” Whitley said.

Part of helping them make positive choices is keeping them away from negative ones, Whitley said, so the gang experts were asked to speak to the group.

“Who thinks that prison would be fun for 32 years?” prosecutor Nicole Belote asked the students.

Not a single student raised his hand, not even in jest.

Belote had just told the students about a 17-year-old girl in Suffolk who went to prison with a 32-year sentence for gang activity.

Another current inmate had been a good student before he got involved with a gang, and also wound up in prison.

Shockley told the students Suffolk currently has about 14 active gangs — two in North Suffolk and about a dozen in the downtown area.

Judging by the students’ response to it, the program seemed to have its desired effect.

Some said they had learned how important it is to make good decisions in high school.

“I learned that coming to high school is a big step up,” Gabrielle Jones said. “We’re not children anymore, we have to put away childish things.”

Courtney Moscato said she will try to convince a boy she knows to give up the gang life.

“I’m going to try to get one of his friends to talk to him,” Courtney said. “He should be careful.”

Breyahna King said she learned to be careful of giving the impression of gang activity.

“You have to be careful what you say to people,” she said.