Lessons Could Help Keep Kids Safe

CRIME BEAT

Crime Scenes

July 17, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Peter.hermann@baltsun.com

The federal agents went through the lesson plans, step by step.

How do you deal with someone who is screaming at you?

How do you say "no" to the popular girl who wants you to smoke a joint?

How do you tell your friend you don't want to join a gang?

That's when the harsh realities of Baltimore streets ran into the four walls of the classroom at New Psalmist Baptist Church on Old Frederick Road on Thursday.

"What if the gang members find you snitched and come to try to kill you?" one little boy asked.

Suddenly, the problems of the fictional characters in the Gang Resistance Education and Training pamphlet - such as whether Maria should go to a popular girl's party and use marijuana - seemed almost trivial.

But Clare Weber from Baltimore and Jeffrey Matthews from Washington, both agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, didn't break stride, telling 38 kids in the sixth through eighth grades that they understand all too well that real-life pressures can overwhelm. They hope that this weeklong training session helps these kids make good choices.

It's not always easy.

"I was wearing all red one day, and an older boy approached me and asked me if I wanted to join the Bloods," another child told the agents, who asked that the names of the children not be divulged for safety reasons. "My friend, he was in blue, and he said 'yes' when the Crips asked him to join because he was in all blue. I don't even wear red anymore. I don't want to get shot walking home."

The group had spent the morning in a classroom talking about how to recognize when somebody else is angry and how to calm him down without resorting to violence. But Matthews did tell the kids, "This is real life, and if you're in a Bloods neighborhood, wearing blue would be silly."

The GREAT program has been around since 1991, and ATF agents have taken the lead in volunteering to teach kids at camps like this. Most of the children in this week's classes are members of New Psalmist and are between 10 and 12 years old, though Weber said she's been asked to teach kids as young as second-graders.

A big part of the lesson was trying to steer the kids into the right crowd.

"Maybe you don't smoke a joint or join a gang, but just hanging out with the wrong people can get you in trouble," Weber told the group.

So how did the kids propose resolving differences?

"I tell them it's not a big deal," one girl said.

"Just let them keep screaming until they get tired," another said.

"I try to apologize, but if they don't want to accept my apology, I just walk away," a girl added.

"I want to know what made the other person mad so I don't do it again," another said.

In the final scenario from the handbook, Matthews asked what the children would do if their brother were about to join a gang.

"Tell your parents if you can't calm him down," a girl answered.

Matthews agreed: "This is not something minor, this is life and death."

The Rev. Julian Rivera from New Psalmist peppered the kids with questions from the Bible's first slaying, Cain killing Abel after God apparently liked Abel's offering of meat better than Cain's "fruits of the soil."

The kids got the theme right away - one girl said Cain was jealous of his brother - but Rivera pointed out that what Cain had really done was take out his anger with God on his brother.

"Do you see how that can happen?" Rivera asked, shifting to present-day problems.

He said the children are not too young to examine the biblical story of murder.

"Some of these children have worse stories than Cain and Abel."

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