Crime

Keeping kids safe from guns, bullying and online predators

Officer Hilda Hernandez speaks to the students celebrating the end of the Gang Resistance Education and Training program (G.R.E.A.T.) at Cutler Bay Middle School in Cutler Bay.
Officer Hilda Hernandez speaks to the students celebrating the end of the Gang Resistance Education and Training program (G.R.E.A.T.) at Cutler Bay Middle School in Cutler Bay. For the Miami Herald

King Carter lived only six short years before becoming a crime statistic. The first-grader was shot and killed on a Saturday afternoon in February, caught in the crossfire of a grudge shooting by some teens outside his Northwest Miami-Dade County apartment. King was on his way to buy some candy.

In 2015, 24 youths 18 and younger were shot and killed in Miami-Dade, and two were gunned down in Broward, according to the counties’ medical examiners offices.

Friends and family gather to mourn for King Carter, the 6-year-old boy who was killed by a stray bullet

To Tawana Akins of Miami Gardens, the crime prevention fight is personal. King Carter was the fourth person in her family to be murdered, she said.

Akins, her nephew, Santonio Carter, who is King’s father, and other family members started the “Save our Kings and Queens” movement. “It’s a foundation that we started to bring families back together and the community together by holding events,” Akins said. “Most times violence occurs because there’s nothing else to do.”

Santonio Carter, the father of King Carter, hopes his foundation, Save Our Kings, will affect positive change in a grassroots initiative to staunch gun violence. Six-year-old King was caught in the crossfire of feuding teenagers on February 20.

The group goes into crime-ridden communities every Thursday, serving hot meals to kids and holding rallies.

“We’re talking to parents, making connections in the community, and meeting new people who lost their kids through gun violence who join us along the way,” Akins said.

But Akins, a fourth-grade teacher at Holmes Elementary in Miami, has long been fighting to keep kids out of the cross-hairs of crime. Years ago she started the Better Me club at her school to mentor kids who are still at an impressionable age.

“If we get to the kids when they are at the elementary level, we can prevent a lot,” she said. “We do simple little things, like a McDonald’s breakfast, and they love it. It gets the conversation going about what’s happening in their neighborhood. We try to put hope into them, peace and love.”

Crime prevention in schools

Gun violence. Abduction. Gangs. Drugs.

Keeping youths away from crime involves two paths — teaching kids how to stay safe, and deterring them from committing crimes themselves. Both Miami-Dade and Broward’s public school systems offer a variety of programs to help. Here is a sample:

Miami-Dade County Public Schools has its own police department, with nearly 200 officers. This department partners with local law enforcement, and works with about 1,000 civilian school security monitors, said Raul Correa, spokesman for the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department.

Correa said the objective is to place an officer at every secondary school, including K-8, middle and high school. Officers also are assigned a cluster of elementary schools to visit.

A former educator who has worked in law enforcement for 26 years, Correa said, “The earlier you expose children to positive interaction with law enforcement, the better the outcome.”

Kindergarten Cop, for elementary school students, brings officers into classrooms to do some positive mentoring, he said. “Nine out of 10 times when you see a police officer, it’s in a negative light — someone got hurt, or something happened,” Correa said. “We’re changing that.”

The department’s G.R.E.A.T. program, which stands for Gang Resistance Education and Awareness Training, is a federally funded, curriculum-based program that will impact 6,000 children this school year, Correa said.

“But it’s not just about gangs, it’s about non-violence, and the importance of doing the right thing at the right time, and what type of character you need to be successful in the future,” Correa said.

A six-week program geared to third-graders is offered at elementary schools, and a 13-week program geared to sixth-graders is offered at middle schools. The program is taught by police officers who have had 60 hours of training, said Armando Sotero, a police officer and regional administrator for the G.R.E.A.T. program. Sotero oversees the Miami-Dade program, as well as the training for 12 states in the southeastern United States.

At the elementary school level, one of the main focuses is bullying. “We role-play scenarios, like a bully on a bus, and how you would react in an empathetic way,” Sotero said. “Another lesson focuses on effective communication skills, including body language.”

The middle school lessons are more grown-up, he said. “We talk about the real deal with gangs and violence, and we dispel the glamorization that kids are seeing on video games, movies and in their community,” Sotero said.

The key to whether a child gets involved in criminal activities goes back to the decisions they make, he said. “It’s about making the right choices. We put them in the role-playing situations where they have opportunities to make good decisions, about skipping school, smoking marijuana, joining a gang or being involved in gun violence.” Sotero said.

The Broward District Schools Police Department lists a staff of 52 on its website. Prevention coordinator Reginald Browne, one of three officers who work with prevention, said the department runs a campaign to help students feel comfortable reporting troubling events.

“Called ‘Silence Hurts,’ it gives kids an avenue to speak up. It’s an awareness campaign to help students report bad things, like bullying, a fight, illegal activities or some type of danger at school or in their community,” Browne said. “Similar to Crimestoppers, there is a phone number, email address and text messaging.”

Keeping it simple helps children respond, he said. “We try to create a comfort level for reporting without consequence, because if a kid shares information in front of other kids, they might be labeled and isolated,” Browne said. “We’re creating a culture of safety.”

The department also offers gang prevention programs for parents, students and teachers. “We talk about how students can become involved in gangs, what the signs are, and how it can lead to trouble like drugs and fighting,” Browne said.

Resource officers at the schools also lead programs to teach kids about personal safety, resisting drugs and avoiding violence.

Aimee Wood, a prevention specialist with Broward Schools’ Diversity, Prevention and Intervention Department, specializes in violence prevention, including bullying, dating violence and Internet safety.

“We used to do a small amount of stranger abduction prevention, but we’re finding there’s not a big demand for it. We’re driven by what the community and schools ask for, and they’re asking more for bullying prevention and Internet safety — keeping kids from oversharing online and avoiding online predators,” she said.

Schools request programs based on student needs, Wood said, though every student and teacher gets exposed annually to an anti-violence and bullying program. An Internet safety component of the training has parts that warn against pedophiles, cyberbullying, stranger danger and online predators. “There’s lots of pieces that can be used, based on what a school requests,” Wood said.

Wood’s department is in the fifth year of a five-year grant focusing on middle schools and dating violence. “We’re finding a surprising number of middle schoolers are dating, and an alarming number of those have experienced some form of dating violence,” she said. “We always knew high schoolers were experiencing it, but we find it’s happening at much earlier ages.”

In Florida, all students grades 7-12 are required to have annual training on dating violence prevention. In Broward, sixth-graders also go through the training.

In the community

Alina Lopez is a school coordinator for Youth Crime Watch, a component of the Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade County, a nonprofit countywide crime prevention program. It serves nearly 30,000 Miami-Dade public school students.

“Our main focus is to start school Youth Crime Watch clubs, a spinoff of neighborhood watch programs where the kids are the eyes and ears of their school,” Lopez said. “They learn how to report suspicious things — fights that are going to happen, areas near schools where drugs are sold. We teach them not to be afraid to come forward, and that they can remain anonymous.” The program also offers school presentations on topics like stranger danger.

Nancy McBride, executive director, Florida Outreach, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said the center offers two main prevention programs for kids. All materials are free.

“Netsmartz [Netsmartzkids.org] deals with online safety, everything from putting too much information online to what happens if you’re sexting or somebody approaches you and tries to extort you for nude pictures,” McBride said. “It’s geared to kids from kindergarten through high school, with different foundations being laid at each age group.”

Kidsmartz (Kidsmartz.org) is an interactive child abuse and abduction prevention program for elementary school kids. McBride said it teaches that the risk goes beyond stranger danger.

“The danger is far greater from the parents, the family and someone who the child knows, rather than from some random stranger,” she said.

“The new message we’re taking to kids doesn’t mention the word stranger,” McBride said. “It can be anybody. That makes it different from the scary weirdo behind the tree. The likelihood of the scary weirdo is less than somebody who is in a position of trust with a child, for example, Little League coaches, Scout leaders — people who have an established relationship. These are people who can break down inhibitions of a child because they do have that trust.”

Safety tips for kids

▪ Choose a safe route to and from school.

▪ Parents of smaller kids should walk the route with them several times if kids are expected to walk without adult supervision.

▪ Remember there is strength in numbers — walk to school and around the neighborhood with friends.

▪ Be aware of your surroundings, and identify safe houses or places along the way — a friend’s house, a store, etc.— where you can seek assistance if needed.

▪ Use designated crosswalks to cross the street.

▪ If you see a car following you or if someone approaches you as you play at a park, do not speak to them. Walk or run away.

▪ If someone tries to grab you, scream, but use words that will attract attention. Use phrases like “I don't know this person;” “Get away from me;” or “This is not my mom/dad.”

▪ If you can't run away because you're being grabbed, kick, punch and bite to get away.

▪ Never go with a person you don't know. Try to run as fast and as far away as you can and get help.

For parents

▪ The top five methods used during abduction attempts are: 1. Offering a ride. 2. Offering candy or sweets. 3. Asking questions. 4. Offering money. 5. Offering, looking for or showing an animal.

▪ Teach your child about the methods abductors use. Have your child practice responding to the tricks by saying “no,” walking away and telling a trusted adult immediately.

▪ Talk to your child’s school or day care facility about its pickup policy. Be clear that no one should pick up your child without your permission. Ask to be contacted immediately if someone else tries to pick up your child.

▪  Prepare children to act when you are not with them. They should know their full name, home addresses and telephone numbers, and how to dial 911.

▪ Keep a child identification kit, which includes a recent color photo of your child and descriptive details, such as age, height and weight. For more information about creating a kit visit www.missingkids.com/ChildID.

Sources: Raul Correa, Miami-Dade Schools Police Department; Alina Lopez, Youth Crime Watch; and Nancy McBride; National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

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