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A Pledge To Value Their Lives

At Assembly, Students Promise To Avoid Guns

February 5, 2005
By TINA A. BROWN, Courant Staff Writer

Most schoolchildren, including those in Hartford, grow up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But as a few hundred students filed through the auditorium doors Friday at Martin Luther King Elementary School in Hartford, they were reminded of another pledge they've agreed to live by.

"...I will never carry a gun to school. I will never resolve a dispute with a gun. I will try, by my actions, to be a positive influence on others so that they don't solve problems with guns. I promise to remember to live this pledge. Sign it, mean it; live it and keep it."

The so-called "Wake Up" pledge was particularly pertinent this week as Hartford school officials, police, leaders of community and faith-based groups learned of President Bush's new initiative aimed at luring at-risk youths, particularly boys, away from gangs. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are an estimated 750,000 gang members in the country, and 90 percent of them are males.

First lady Laura Bush will spearhead the three-year, $150 million campaign to fund faith-based and community programs nationwide. The program, which the president announced at the State of the Union address, would allow faith-based and community groups to apply for competitive grants that reach the president's goals, said Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman.

The Bush administration hopes to highlight the importance of programs that "show young people the ideal of manhood that respects life and rejects violence," Bush said in his speech. It is something that he and Laura Bush championed when Bush was governor of Texas.

Some in Hartford welcome the additional federal funding. Others say it's the kind of program they've delivered for years on a shoestring budget and they'd continue to produce with or without government funds.

Just about every community and anti-violence leader reached this week in Hartford agreed that there is a need to continue to reach troubled youths in the city. While more than 175 programs are already working with at-risk youth in Hartford, Mayor Eddie A. Perez said recently there were not enough people working together to change the lives of the children who need it most.

On Friday, two Hartford-born professionals, Deputy Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts and Eric Crawford, the school district's violence intervention specialist, were trying. They gave a straight-talk message to the sixth-graders at King School about choosing education over gangs and crime.

Both men said they'd fought their way out of poverty into a better life through education. They chose to be "Offies," or the smart kids. Now, it was time for the youths to choose between the life of an "Offie" and that of a "thug," they said.

Crawford, 43, told the children he knows what they live with. He had a brother on drugs and another in the penitentiary and another who slept on his mother's couch until he was 30. He said if he were a kid today, he'd meet the definition of an at-risk child. "But I didn't use it as an excuse to wild out in school," Crawford said.

Although Crawford took the harder line approach, Roberts encouraged the kids to think about who they want to become. He told them that each of them was capable of going to college.

"How you see yourself is what you will become," Roberts said.

Roberts said his mother raised him and seven brothers "by herself in a housing project" - Hartford's Bellevue Square. But he also did not use the disadvantages of growing up poor as an excuse to commit crimes, he said. He warned the children that if they played with guns - whether a BB gun, fake or real - they ran the risk of dying on Hartford streets.

Roberts displayed a BB gun, and his demonstration seemed to electrify some of the kids. He explained that guns aren't toys like popular video games, Play Station and X-Box. "When you shoot with those games, [the imaginary] people come back. When you shoot a human being, it is real," he said. "That's not how you resolve your problems."

Crawford challenged the children to abandon "the losers" in gangs, a statement that made some of the schoolchildren, boys and girls, fidget in their seats and others sit at attention.

When it was time to ask questions, the children didn't ask Roberts and Crawford where they'd gone to school or anything about their professions. They wanted to know about lasers and guns, something that turned Crawford back into the hard-edged mentor in a suit.

"We ain't going to talk about guns," he said. "We are going to talk about education."

Time will tell whether their message influenced the children Friday. Crawford said what he knows for sure is that the tag team didn't need a special program to reach hundreds of children in one hour.

"What did it cost? An hour of our time. It was priceless for some of those kids. [The children] need to know that we were just like them and we made it out."

There are many other people in Hartford doing similar work as volunteers, said the Rev. Shelley D.B. Copeland, executive director of the Capitol Region Conference of Churches.

For years, the conference has implemented a number of programs in the religious community to help troubled families. Many of the member churches want to create programs but lack funding, staff and training, she said.

Others just rough it, operating programs with limited government funding because it's the right thing to do, Copeland said. With about $25,000, the Sons of Thunder Coalition, for example, has reached about 200 kids for more than 10 years through a basketball league and scholarship and college programs.

"It's our passion, not the money," said Copeland. "They are ordinary people who do it."

An Associated Press report was included in this story.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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