- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Fairfax County fourth- and fifth-graders are taking part in a three-week program that will teach them to say “no” to gangs.

The “Get Real About Violence” program at Annandale Terrace Elementary School is the first of its kind in Northern Virginia, where gangs have grown into one of law enforcement’s top problems in the past few years.

The program teaches the children how to refuse and be resilient when confronted with a violent situation. The children also participate in recreation activities that teach them about teamwork.

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Officials said the program is designed to prepare elementary school children for what’s to come in middle and high schools. Federal law enforcement documents show that gangs have begun recruiting members in elementary and middle schools.

“Middle school is really rough. They should be ready for the confrontation they’re going to receive,” said Francine Nelson, a drug-and-alcohol counselor from Fairfax County’s substance-abuse services.

Mrs. Nelson, who is the program’s main instructor, said a few boys in the program told her on the first day that they had been approached about joining a gang. The children in the program are ages 10 and 11.

“If they go to middle school unprepared, that’s when trouble starts and they can be misled or fall into a negative leadership role,” she said. “There are a few kids in this program who have the capability for that.”

Nineteen children took part in the program yesterday. More than 20 children had signed up for the program, which runs for about three hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays during the school’s summer break. The program ends July 22.

The program is a joint project of the school’s principal Christina Dickens, the Fairfax County Department of Community and Recreation Services and the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board. It is funded through a grant from the community services board.

Police and government officials have said that law enforcement alone cannot solve the gang problem.

“It has to be on the intervention side, where we keep kids from getting recruited,” said Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Police have estimated that there are more than 4,000 gang members in Northern Virginia and said the street gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, accounts for 95 percent of gang-related crimes in Fairfax County. Police said MS-13 has committed several violent crimes in Northern Virginia, including a May 10 machete attack that nearly severed a rival gang member’s hands.

During a game in the gym yesterday, the children were divided into four teams and given a jumble of puzzle pieces. They were asked to put together the puzzle and barter with other teams for the remaining pieces.

The game is supposed to help the children learn how to share, said Evan Braff, a supervisor from the community and recreation services division.

“They’re good kids,” Mrs. Nelson said. “I think that with a lot of intervention, a lot of one-on-one work with some of these kids, they’ll be OK.”

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