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Training Program Great Success
Sixth graders at El Portal Middle School did something G.R.E.A.T. this school year.

They learned all about staying away from gangs and drugs in the Gang Resistance Education And Training - G.R.E.A.T. - program. Escalon Police Officer Shane Johnson served as instructor for the program, going into the classrooms on the El Portal campus.

"It was the first year and the kids were pretty receptive," he said, noting that it took them a little time to get used to him and his style.

Once they learned he was there to help teach them some real world 'survival skills,' they developed a good working relationship.

The 13-week program touched on a variety of topics, including ways to say 'no' to gangs and drugs, building self-esteem, dealing with peer pressure and more. There were eight classes of sixth graders that went through the program, with most of the nearly 250 students receiving certificates of completion.

"The majority of the kids graduated, they had to do a final project and I'd say at least 90 to 95 percent of them did it and got a certificate," Johnson noted.

The officer was on the campus three days a week to teach the class.

"We've got a good foundation started," Escalon Police Chief Doug Dunford said. "It's going to take some time to get it fully established, it's maybe a two- to three-year process."

The police department applied for a grant to continue offering the program but Dunford said they have not received word yet whether the grant application was approved. There are some supplemental law enforcement funds available to help with financing G.R.E.A.T. for another year if the grant does not come through.

"I learned not to do dugs, not join a gang," said sixth grader Joe Dunn. "It was good."

Classmate Andrew Panero said he learned about the risks involved and wants to stay away from drugs and smoking.

"It's good for the kids to see where the officers are coming from," added sixth grade teacher Sheri Irion. "Just having that one on one contact in a positive way is important."

Johnson said the program also likely will be adjusted, perhaps offering it during the regularly scheduled health class, as opposed to taking time away from other subjects.

"We started off broad, talked about the program in general," Johnson explained. "Then we talked about how they (kids) affect the community."

By realizing that their actions can impact their entire community, Johnson said they moved on to such areas as decision-making, refusal skills and empathy.

"As they get older, they'll be able to use these skills they've learned and hopefully make the school a safer place," Johnson said. "I'd say it was a very successful program."

Some students will also be able to take part in a summer program though G.R.E.A.T., which is planned for June 22 through 25 at the Escalon Community Center, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"There will be a lesson and some sports, I'm working on getting traffic units, fire and EMS here for demonstrations," Johnson explained. "We want to show them the value of teamwork through games, fun and activities."

Johnson said he is also looking for donations from local businesses to help offset the cost of lunches and supplies for the summer program, which will be offered to about two dozen students this year.