Mesa Police Chief George Gascón sees the freshman year of high school as a pivotal one: will it be drugs and crime or citizenship and responsibility?
To help tip teenagers in the right direction, the Mesa Police Department is working with the Mesa Unified School District and community organizations to pilot an alternative education program for at-risk 14- and 15- year-olds at McKellips Middle School. It is to begin in mid-January.
Gascón recently shared plans for the program with the 51-member board of Mesa United Way, hoping to inspire a partnership. The nonprofit agency may choose to support the fledgling program financially, or it may choose to assist by helping connect participants to resources and mentors in the community, according to Judy Bowden, chief financial officer and vice president of Community Development for Mesa United Way.
For nine weeks, Monday through Friday, between 30 and 60 high school freshmen would begin each day with physical training led by military officers, said Mary Sennett, the program’s coordinator and youth services coordinator for the police department. Then, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., classroom sessions would focus on themes including anger management and bolstering social skills.
Other topics could include peer pressure, media influence and critical thinking, drugs, the law and youth, choosing role models and diversity.
Teens with a tendency toward violence could visit a morgue or a trauma center, and those lacking social skills could go on social outings, such as to a restaurant.
Parents would be required to attend a weekly night class themed to match the student curriculum.
“If we can get the parent buyin, it’ll be a successful way to engage parents and have them be part of the solution,” Sennett said.
Organizers also hope to use morning sessions for field trips, community service activities and job shadowing, district Superintendent Deb Duvall said.
“We’re really looking for community help here,” Duvall said, stressing that the program is not strictly a police and school project.
Gascón oversaw a similar program at the Los Angeles Police Department. But it was limited to Saturdays and very much functioned outside of the daily school system’s curriculum, he said. Gascón said he is excited to integrate Mesa’s program into the school day, which he thinks will be more effective.
The main focus of the program is to craft teens into productive members of society.
“We don’t want to pay for their incarceration, we want them to add to the community,” Sennett said.
Marine Corps League judge advocate Jerry Walker focused on the benefits to participants, saying, “We’d rather do something for them than to them.” The league will be contributing three former Marines to serve as training officers for the program.
Students for the pilot program will be drawn from the existing student body at Mc-Kellips Middle School, which has approximately 130 students. School representatives will give suggestions about who they think would benefit most from the program.
Ultimately, participation will hinge upon parents who commit to the idea.
The program can be offered in Spanish and in English, depending on who chooses to participate, Sennett said.
Once students complete the program, they’ll transition back to the school’s standard curriculum for the remainder of their high school years. Sennett said the program could operate as much as four times a year at McKellips Middle School.
After completing the program, students will be pointed toward community groups like the Young Marines and Mesa Police Explorers where they can continue their educations in life skills and citizenship. Walker said Young Marines activities have included a trip to the Navajo Nation, where participants met Code Talkers who served in World War II.
GASCÓN COURTS UNITED WAY AID
Mesa Police Chief George Gascón introduced members of the Mesa United Way board Tuesday to his idea for a private foundation aimed at funding extra police officer training opportunities. Gascón said he is searching for ways to equip his force with the most cutting-edge strategies and equipment available.
Additional funding for training would allow officers to travel to national conferences in order to exchange ideas about law enforcement techniques, and the department could invite guest speakers to Mesa to run workshops. Extra money is necessary to pay speakers and to cover officers’ flight costs and perdiem expenses. Gascón said he did not ask the United Way for money, but for help in locating members of the community who would be interested in supporting the foundation. He hopes to have the foundation up and running in 2007.