LaGrange discusses ways to help youth

Published 6:23 pm Thursday, January 24, 2019

On Tuesday, the LaGrange City Council heard updates on programs that address youth violence in the community. 

Representatives from Greater Achievement Youth Empowerment Inc., Troup Acts and Communities in Schools all spoke at the meeting. Many of the programs discussed during the meeting were led by the LaGrange Police Department or received its support. 

Greater Achievement Youth Empowerment is an ACT and SAT tutoring program that operates out of Cannon Street School. Program coordinator Dr. Glenn Dowell is an advocate of helping students improve test scores to provide future opportunities to those students, and he noted the role of education in crime prevention.

“Education is the best crime prevention strategy, and pursuant to that, we provide SAT and ACT tutoring,” Dowell said. “We are very good at it.”

According to Dowell, Greater Achievement just received a grant from Walmart to continue its program. He said that during the last two years the program has provided tutoring for more than 200 students, and the group has test scores for approximately 94 of those students, many with high scores.

“We have had a significant number of students to score 1,000 above on the SAT and do just as well on the ACT,” Dowell said. 

Meanwhile, Troup Acts is a taskforce that seeks to engage the school board, retired and active school teachers and representatives of the faith community in order to provide better education in the county. George Henry, a retired psychiatrist and member of Troup Acts, said the group looks for ways to support teachers and parents, and it is looking at ways to have listening sessions in the format of town halls for parents.

LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar confirmed the importance of education in lower crime rates in the city.

“Generally, the state trend is 70 percent of people in prison dropped out of high school, and so there is a direct correlation between education and involvement in criminal activity,” Dekmar said. “The components that we use as our strategy of enforcement when you hear about enforcement are prevention, intervention and prison re-entry.”

That statistic may be part of the reason why the LPD supports such a wide array of program for local youth. Out of these programs, parents may be most familiar with Law Enforcement Against Drugs program, which has replaced DARE in recent years. LEAD includes education sections on drugs, bullying and gangs that are designed to help students make good decisions and create strong relationships with local officers.

“We talk about how to stay away from drugs, how to stay away from gangs and address the type of violence that happens to [students],” Sgt. Monica Peterson said. “The best part of this program is we don’t just want children involved. Every lesson at the very end has a homework paper that goes home to the parent, so the child can sit down with their parent to sign their homework and go over it with them.”

Peterson said the program takes place at a critical time, when students are preparing to transition from the role of “cool” big kids in elementary school to the youngest students in middle school. 

She said the program also gives LPD the chance to answer questions from the students, some of whom Peterson said know a surprising amount about gangs and gang units.

“When it comes to talking more about gangs, we’ve had the opportunity to have our drug unit and our gang units come to the different schools and sit down with our children and have one on ones with them,” Peterson said. “This is eye opening. The very thing you would think a fifth grader shouldn’t know about the gang unit, they do.”

Thornton asked if LPD is seeing gang recruitment in elementary schools, which was a concern raised in Gov. Brian Kemp’s inaugural speech. 

“It depends on the child. It depends on the location,” Peterson said. “It also depends on the parents. The parents are a part of it. Before that child is in third grade, they already know all the signs, and if those children know the signs, they pass it on to other children in the schools. So, getting to them in elementary school is probably the easiest way. Like I said, in fifth grade, they are on top, and the little kids look up to them and want to do what they are doing.”

Peterson said that is why it is important to reach out to students while they are in fifth grade. Dekmar noted that both LEAD and the LPD’s summer camp feature sections to encourage parental involvement.

“We have great attendance from the parents at the summer camps,” Dekmar said. “We’ve expanded that to two summer camps because they were so well attended.”

The LPD hosts a two-week long summer youth program every year, which typically fills up quickly. The annual program also focuses on forming relationships with participants.

“We cover everything from gang violence to a little bit about what we do, but it is more about public safety in general,” McCoy said. “It is not just the police department. The fire department participates, EMS and a lot of other groups come out for that.”

McCoy said the age range of students accepted to the camp varies from year to year depending on enrollment, but students ages 7 through 13 have taken part in the past.

According to Lt. Eric Lohr, the LPD offers the opportunity for two to three students a year to take part in ride-alongs in police cars, and the LPD also hosts internships with local colleges. Officer Jim Davison spoke on the Explorer Program that is also available to local high school students through the LPD and Boy Scouts of America.

McCoy said that even when LPD officers aren’t taking part in the programs discussed during the meeting on Tuesday, many LPD officers spend time volunteering with youth teams and local programs that form relationships with local children.

“We coach. We referee,” McCoy said. “There is a lot of sports involvement with a lot of kids in Troup County, but then we’ve got people like Sgt. Kirby who has a passion for music and some of the kids have picked up on that passion as well.” 

Thornton thanked those in attendance for their efforts so far, while encouraging them to keep moving forward.

“I think this all changes the image of police in the community, and I think that is what is hopefully going to enable some of those parents, churches and other organizations to reach out to develop some anti-gang programs,” Thornton said. “I think that is an important message.”

According to McCoy, the Community Outreach group plans to discuss ways to prevent and stop youth violence during future meetings.

The LaGrange City Council is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 12 at 5:30 p.m. at 208 Ridley Ave.