For the first time this year, all seventh- and eighth-graders in Fairfax County schools will have lessons on the dangers of gangs, including tips on how to walk away from gang members who try to convince them to join.
The middle schoolers, as part of the health class curriculum, will be told they shouldn't dress like gang members or copy gang hand signs. A fact sheet they'll receive advises: "Don't date a gang member. Avoid even talking to known gang members."
Retired Fairfax County police officer P.D. O'Keefe, the school system's violence prevention specialist, said the direct and practical lessons are necessary because many children are exposed to gang culture in their communities.
"A lot of kids are just infatuated with this lifestyle," O'Keefe told dozens of teachers during a training session on the new curriculum last week. "They think it's cool, and they don't understand the consequences."
The lessons, which a teacher and the school resource officer will teach together, are only one way Fairfax County has been working to bolster gang prevention efforts. In October, O'Keefe is heading to Los Angeles with other county and police officials in hopes of picking up tips from officials there who have long dealt with gang violence. The district is also planning a January seminar at which school counselors, social workers and school psychologists will learn about ways to help young gang members leave their gangs.
There have been few violent gang-related incidents in Fairfax schools, but gang violence is an increasing problem in the Washington area.
Last spring, a Fairfax County teenager's hands were mutilated in a machete attack by a rival gang member in the Alexandria section of the county. And just last month, two students were stabbed in Montgomery County after summer school classes in a gang-related attack in the parking lot of the Colesville area's Springbrook High School
Ann Monday, the county's assistant superintendent for instructional services, said that Fairfax schools have long offered gang prevention lessons but that the program wasn't used in every school. The new approach will ensure that every child will hear the lessons, and will put them in touch with adults they can go to with concerns.
"The students want to be given the support to do the right thing, so we're going to help them do that," Monday said.
O'Keefe said the students will be taught to avoid areas that are known as gang territory and never to gossip about gangs. They'll also receive tips on how to react if they are approached by gang members.
"You have to give them a way to get out of it with pride and without insulting people," O'Keefe said. "I tell kids to say, 'I can't because I have a job.' Or I tell them to get involved in sports. Or it can be, 'I can't because every day I have to go home and take care of my brother.' "
The gang lessons are only one part of a new health education curriculum that also includes sections on preventing bullying and revamped nutrition lessons based on the recently revised food pyramid.
Roberto Pamas, principal at Holmes Middle School in the Alexandria section of the county, said he's found that the best way to keep kids away from gangs -- and other trouble -- is by giving them something else to do. On any given weekday, he estimated about 250 of the school's 800 students stay after school for a few hours for an academic program, to play in the school's soccer or basketball league or to participate in clubs.
"From 3 to 6 p.m. is the time when the parents are not at home and the students are on their way home," Pamas said. "The best prevention method is to keep them at school as long as possible."