The lessons are simple, yet profound in Officer Mark Bennett’s G.R.E.A.T. class at Creswell Middle School in Nashville.
“Gang Resistance Education and Training. Is this about talking about like Crips and Bloods? No, this is life skills. This is to help change mindsets,” said Bennett, a Metro Nashville police officer and School Resource Officer.
Students do learn about the dangers of gangs, but also about how to respect their classmates.
In just their first lesson, several fifth graders dove right into a role-play scenario of bullying on the school bus and received applause from the class.
Officer Bennett keeps the mood overwhelmingly positive, and there are always door prizes. But the subject matter is serious.
So far this year, Metro police have reported more than 1,500 juvenile arrests.
“We see what’s going on in our communities, and I know parents are really, really worried about their kids as far as some of the violence that’s going on in some our communities,” Officer Bennett said. “I would encourage them to have open lines of communication and talk with their children.”
Life can get more complicated for students in the teenage years, that’s why it’s so important to start these programs in middle school or even earlier.
“We really got to touch them at the youngest age as we can,” Officer Bennett said. “One of the things we’ve already started a few years ago is the elementary G.R.E.A.T. summer camp where we have second, third and fourth graders come to a summer camp – a week-long camp.”
“I hope to learn about how the stuff in the outside world, about how all this bad stuff that’s been happening and how we can make it better so this stuff won’t happen anymore,” said fifth-grade student Jason Johnson.
Johnson said his first G.R.E.A.T class has already given him the motivation to be part of that positive change.
“I’ve seen a lot of people in the hallway; they always be talking about people and now I’m going to start telling them you shouldn’t do that no more,” Johnson said.
Officer Bennett encourages his students to tell an adult if they’re being bullied. That’s what Imani Jones did. She now encourages her classmates to speak up for themselves.
“I want to try to prevent that,” Jones said. “I don’t want that to happen to them because it happened to me, and I don’t want them to face that.”
She’s also faced something else incredibly difficult with admirable maturity – deadly violence in her own community.
“I think about that a lot,” Jones said. “I don’t really want it to be in my environment, but it already has been. I felt sad though about the people who did lose their lives about the violence.”
Officer Bennett said stopping the violence starts with this generation and more leaders like Imani and Jason.
“Once you get that cycle going, and it gets contagious and spreads throughout our neighborhoods and throughout our communities, we’re going to have a better Nashville,” Bennett said.
The G.R.E.A.T program encourages parental involvement.
Students are sent home with letters to share with their parents, and they’re encouraged to talk about the lessons they’ve learned.