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Students get some GREAT advice on avoiding the lure of gangs

One 11-year-old boy was traumatized when he saw a man shot to death.

An 11-year-old girl was the target of two bullies who punched her in the stomach.

Another 12-year-old said his father is a former gang member who spent time in prison.

These are just a few of the stories told by the fifth-graders at School 18, 118 Hampshire St. on the city's West Side, where many students have witnessed outbreaks of violence in their troubled neighborhoods.

The Buffalo Police Department is trying to give the students the tools to battle these negative influences with an innovative program, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT).

Thursday, 57 children -- all fifth-graders at School 18 -- participated in their GREAT graduation ceremony.

"You are getting to an age where people will be approaching you to be in a gang and asking you to hold onto a gun," Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson told the children.

"All of these decisions have consequences, so don't be one of those carrying guns and stealing guns . . . And to the young women, it just breaks my heart to see those women with baby carriages waiting to see someone in jail. That's not any kind of life."

School 18 is the last of seven Buffalo schools where fifth-graders have graduated from the program this school year. The other schools were: Schools 79, 74, 53, 31, 43 and Buffalo United Charter School.

Each graduating student was handed a T-shirt and a certificate for completing the six-week program, taught by Police Officers Lisa Wilson-Smith and Sheldon Howard.

One of the children in the audience was Juan Garcia, who said he witnessed a man being shot to death at a summer festival about two years ago.

"There was a shooting and a person was accidentally shot and a lot of people were crying and screaming and running for help," the 11-year-old recalled.

When asked what he had learned from the GREAT program, Juan quickly replied, "It taught me that you are the only one who can make a decision for yourself. I think that people who shoot have problems and can't control their anger."

Neishmarie Ramos, 11, said she remembers that when she was in third grade, a boy brought a gun to school and another carried a pocket knife, but when another student told a teacher, the boys were expelled. She said the police program has taught her how to handle these types of situations.
Tonecia Horton, 12, said that about three years ago, she saw a group of men fighting and then pull out their guns in her West Side neighborhood.

"If you're a bystander, you have to tell the truth," Tonecia said. "It's not being a snitch. It's stopping a bigger problem."

Wilson-Smith is hoping that all she has taught the students will be fresh in their minds when negative situations arise.

"What happens when you fight?" she asked the students.

The students replied in unison: "You get suspended."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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