Vineland combats gangs at school level

JOSEPH P. SMITH (Daily Journal)
March 31, 2010

VINELAND, NEW JERSEY — Busting street gang members for crimes may draw the bulk of public attention, but the effort of law enforcement agencies to disrupt the phenomenal growth of gangs is a war with more than one front.

“We have vigorous enforcement activities when we identify a group,” police Lt. Thomas Ulrich said. “We target those individuals. But the most important part is the intervention program, to try to divert them (youths) through our chaplain program and things like that. That’s where we are focusing most of our efforts.”

Gangs and law enforcement have one common understanding: Schools are prime recruiting grounds for gang members, and the age limit — already low — is falling.

Old standbys like the Police Athletic League and newer initiatives like the Vineland police force’s “chaplains” program are two tools to steer youths in the right direction.

Last fall, however, the Police Department decided to explore another approach to the problem. Chief Timothy Codispoti cleared a detective from its Juvenile Unit to start a new intervention program in the city’s public schools.

The program is part of GREAT — for Gang Resistance Education and Training. GREAT has spread nationally since its start in 1991 in Phoenix, although it hasn’t always stuck where tried.

The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office found federal money to pick up the incidental costs for GREAT in Vineland.

Mark Anderson, who coordinates the office’s Community Justice program, secured the funds. He picked up an official thank-you and award at the inaugural GREAT graduation here Tuesday.

“Research is showing that schools are a recruiting area for schools,” Anderson said about his office’s interest in the program. “That’s one of the areas we really wanted to partner with — and also through the local police department’s efforts in the school. That’s important to us. The GREAT program is an excellent example of trying to help with that.”

A total of 179 sixth-graders at Veterans Memorial and Landis intermediate schools graduated from GREAT after completing a 13-week course.

Detective Albert Vargas, a 20-year police veteran, taught the course. He also researched the GREAT program and brought it to the attention of his superiors.

“What happened was, we were giving gang awareness programs to the people and the parents,” Vargas said. “Everyone forgot about the children.”

Vargas is the only officer assigned, juggling days between the two schools.

There also is a six-week course designed for elementary school students, which hasn’t been offered yet in Vineland.

Recently, the Police Department picked Officer David Vai to go for GREAT instructor training in August. He’ll take some of the workload off Vargas starting this fall.

Vargas said students are enthusiastic about the lessons, sometimes asking to stay longer than the scheduled 45-minute period.

The GREAT lesson books do more than urge students to stay away from gangs. Bullying, good manners and anger management are part of the curriculum.

“Violence is often the result of not recognizing our own anger,” the elementary workbook’s Lesson 4 opens. “If we do not recognize that we are getting angry, we may simply react. To avoid violence, we must choose to act in a way that helps us cool down and stay in control.”

Vargas wants to be around for another seven or eight years to judge how the program worked. That is when his first GREAT students should graduate high school.

“And we owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude,” Landis Intermediate School Principal Donald Kohaut said Tuesday.

Ulrich, who also is a Vineland Board of Education member, said the department is talking with the school district about scheduling a new round of classes. The addition of another officer as instructor opens the programs to many more students.

Ulrich said the department wants to move next to introduce the course to the district’s elementary schools. After that, GREAT would return to the district’s two remaining middle schools.

“But we will have ever middle school and elementary school done, hopefully by the middle of next year,” he said.

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