WALLA WALLA -- Walla Walla schools have kept gang activity at bay thanks to the introduction of two resource officers who serve its high schools and middle schools.
But while the officers have been able to address and reduce gang activity in schools, their duties aren't geared toward keeping students from joining gangs. Police report gang activity is still popular among a particular group, with members typically recruited in middle school.
Some school leaders and officers believe another in-school resource officer may help. Officer Kevin Braman handles Lincoln Alternative High School and Garrison and Pioneer middle schools and also visits elementary schools as needed. Braman and some school leaders feel a single officer handling the middle schools could help deter gang activity.
Braman said local schools could also be served through the national GREAT (Gang Resistance Education And Training) Program. The program is designed to train law enforcement officers in a curriculum that outlines the consequences of joining gangs, while teaching youths to seek more productive pursuits.
"We need to start at a young age," Braman said. "In doing so, I'd like to see more funding or curriculum where kids are educated younger."
Braman believes talking to children early about the dangers of gangs is a start.
"If they're getting in at seventh and eighth grade, obviously we need to reach them before that," he said.
Portland Police Bureau Lt. Bob Heimbach oversees GREAT for the western region.
Heimbach said the federally funded program requires a couple of weeks of training and a commitment between schools, law enforcement and the community.
"Walla Walla could start the program in the fall very easily," he said.
GREAT is a national program that was established in 1991 in Phoenix. It is broken down into two programs: one designed for middle school, the other for elementary youths. Middle school students receive 13 lessons taught by a trained officer, while fourth- and fifth-graders receive six.
"It's life skills, taught to middle school and elementary school kids, by law enforcement officers, typically in the classroom," Heimbach said.
Officers discuss how to set realistic goals, how to communicate, how to empathize and how bullying affects everyone -- the one doing the bullying, the person being bullied and the children who watch it.
"They draw their own conclusions about why they have to make good decisions," Heimbach said.
Heimbach said the training also includes a family outreach component, where parents are included in the discussion and reminded about their obligations and duties.
"We don't do it in a way to challenge whether or not you are or aren't a good parent," he said. "We don't try to fix anyone. This is improving communication within the family."
Part of the family goal is to empower parents to discipline and regulate as appropriate. And it reminds children they must respect their parents and the values and rules of their home.
Walla Walla Public Schools spokesman Mark Higgins said the district would be interested in learning more about any prevention programs, but committing to one would require studying its effectiveness as well as how it would be introduced in the academic year.
He said the district recognizes prevention is a key to keeping youths away from gangs, and that analysis seems to show prevention needs to start as early as possible.
A five-year study of GREAT by the National Institute of Justice showed the program was effective at educating youths on gangs, and teaching them to regard gangs as less positive. At the same time, the program was showing youths to respect and regard adults and law enforcement more positively.
The study also showed more youths navigating to positive school and extra-curricular activities.
But the study did not show the program as deterring youths from joining gangs. While the program did inform youths to make better choices, gang participation did not drop. The full report can be viewed online at union-bulletin.com.
Heimbach recognized GREAT may need to include curriculum for younger students. Suggestions have been made to gear the program as early as kindergarten.
The challenge, he said, would be developing age-appropriate curriculum since it does not currently exist.
"Developing curriculum is time-consuming and expensive," he said, noting that despite its national reach, the GREAT Program has had its funding cut over time from $25 million at its start to $10 million last year.
For now, Walla Walla officers do pay visits to schools in a style similar to GREAT, although not as extensive.
Gang unit detectives Kevin Bayne and Saul Reyna visit area elementary schools about once a year, usually by invitation of the school or teachers. They speak to fourth- and fifth-grade students about gangs under a broader discussion on bullying.
"All the gangs are a group of bullies," Bayne explained.
The officers also provide information, in English and Spanish, during Garrison and Pioneer middle schools' annual health fairs and a family awareness night at Garrison.
Bayne said it is often surprising to see how much knowledge some elementary school children already have about gangs. Bayne said the youngest gang member they've encountered became a member when he was 9.
At 22, the young man was found guilty of stabbing an acquaintance several times on Ninth Avenue.
"He's doing 17 years in a state penitentiary," Bayne said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.