Come up with a catchy acronym and matching shirts and jackets, and soon you have a club that everyone wants to join.
That was the strategy adopted by now-Lt. Raul Correa of the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department, back in the day 26 years ago when he served as school resource officer at Citrus Grove Middle School. He dubbed his school’s Youth Crime Watch club COP (Citrus on Patrol), the young members took ownership of the club’s efforts and soon everyone wanted to join.
The Youth Crime Watch program, part of the Citizens’ Crime Watch of Miami-Dade, is still going strong after more than 30 years in existence, serving nearly 30,000 students every school year with youth crime prevention presentations, safety projects, rallies, assemblies, special events and Youth Crime Watch club meetings. Youth crime Watch school coordinators conduct more than 500 presentations per school year at various Miami-Dade County schools, and approximately 20 of those schools sponsor successful club programs like the one Correa helped mentor at Citrus Grove.
“The members are not junior cops. They educate their peers about youth crime prevention through positive peer pressure and peer-to-peer education,” says Joel Mesa, education director and school coordinator for Citizens’ Crime Watch.
Participation in the club program takes place at the individual school level, with the Youth Crime Watch program providing training and ongoing support. “We provide materials and resources, but the youth serve as the educators.”
Mesa says schools receive a lot of leeway in implementing the program and in selecting the topics on which they focus. (For two examples of the program’s flexibility, see sidebars “Crime Educators Help Others, and Themselves, Make Better Choices” and “Involving Even the Youngest in Educating Their Peers”.) Potential topics for presentations and club focus area include (but are not limited to) bullying prevention, social media concerns such as cyberbullying and sexting, stranger danger, violence prevention and gun safety awareness. Youth Crime Watch often partners with the Miami-Dade Schools Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies in developing and giving presentations.
“We use Youth Crime Watch as, so to speak, a ‘jack of all trades,’ ” says Public Information Officer Correa. “Our officers are actively involved in gun safety presentations, in character presentations, in anything and everything we can do when it comes to youth safety. We work hand-in-hand with Joel, we help him out and he helps us out. Wherever there is a Youth Crime Watch Club, we are actively involved.”
Correa says that Youth Crime Watch was initially forged out of a partnership between the school system and local law enforcement, including the Miami-Dade Police Department as well as the 200-officer school police department. Mesa recalls that the umbrella Citizens’ Crime Watch program started with citizens concerned about a particular incident of violence more than 40 years ago, and that when that program became successful, the program launched the first Youth Crime Watch Club at North Miami Beach Junior High in 1979. The school board and the police departments came up with funding to continue its success and expand the program (although in recent years that funding has faced competition from other priorities).
Mesa says school crime statistics and survey assessments have continuously demonstrated that schools with YCW programs have lower crime rates and safer school environments, which in turn contribute to academic success. And in addition to academic success in school, the program also can generate life success, according to Correa: “We instill safety lessons and they remember them when they’re adults. Because of that, this is a program that the whole community should support.”
Although the program has strong support in the community and in the school system, Mesa says Youth Crime Watch does face two obstacles to implementing clubs: One is finding a teacher or administrator willing to act as a club adviser, the other is facing the misperception that having a club means there is crime in the school. However, although not all schools want to have clubs, many more do want presentations from Youth Crime Watch and from law enforcement. These schools often also participate in activities such as Blue Ribbon Week to celebrate a violence-free lifestyle, Stop the Violence walks and marches, the Youth Crime Watch poster and essay contest, and many others.
Youth Crime Watch of Miami-Dade is a past recipient of the National Crime Prevention Program of the Year from the National Crime Prevention Council.
“Preventing Crime In and Out of School Through Education and Volunteering.”
That’s the slogan which the students at Miami’s Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School originally came up to describe their Crime Educators program, and it’s still the slogan for that school’s Youth Crime Watch chapter 15 years later.
Kim Ferreira, co-chair of the school’s Special Education Department, says that from the beginning, Krop students wanted to emphasize the educational component of the program by referring to their group as Crime Educators, and Youth Crime Watch (YCW) of Miami-Dade supported the school’s efforts in that direction from the onset. As part of its emphasis on education, the Krop program sponsors numerous guest speakers throughout the year who present in a variety of venues ranging from multiple presentations to individual classrooms to assemblies in the auditorium for some 700 students.
“Some of our presentations are purely educational, but many of our speakers are just sharing their experiences. Students are so tired of being told over and over again by adults ‘don’t do drugs,’ ‘wear your seat belt,’ and so on, but when you have a former gang member who is now a pastor or even a Special Agent from Homeland Security who makes his presentation on human trafficking real by telling stories about high school and middle school kids they can relate to, it makes a difference,” Ferreira says.
Because Youth Crime Watch gives Ferreira and her students the freedom to choose the topics they want to address and how to address them, the school has been able to bring in speakers such as a woman who told about being valedictorian of her class and deciding on a military career, and “a week before she was supposed to leave, she went out drinking with her friends, and she got so trashed she doesn’t remember getting into her car. She doesn’t remember around 4 or 5 in the morning hitting someone who was selling newspapers and pinning that person’s body under her car. She does remember the time she spent in prison for vehicular manslaughter. That’s very different than someone just standing up and saying ‘Drinking and driving kills.’ ”
Youth Crime Watch also supports the Krop Crime Educators in taking field trips to their feeder middle and elementary schools, where the high school students present to the younger children. Ferreira says both groups benefit from the shared activities and “it’s eye-opening for the older kids. They can’t believe the questions they get and what the younger children know and have been exposed to.”
One of the students involved in these presentations as president of the Crime Educators group has gone on to graduate from college and become director of an aftercare program; he likes to occasionally return to Krop and act as an adult chaperone on field trips. Ferreira explains this young man was an elementary school bully — not just someone who called other children names but someone who got physical and forced younger children to give him money. It turns out, she says, that he in turn was being bullied by a physically abusive older brother, and he turned his life around in high school and won numerous awards for his part in Youth Crime Watch and the Crime Educators.
“When he went with us as a chaperone to his former elementary school, the teachers there were shocked because every single one of them told me he was the worst kid they had ever seen in all their years of teaching, and to me he’s just a gentle giant,” she says. “A lot of times as teachers, you think you have a bully and you have a victim, and you have to help the victim, but if you find out where the bully is coming from, it may be that he needs help too.”
In addition to sponsoring speakers and going into the field to give presentations, the Youth Crime Watch Crime Educators participate in the national Red Ribbon Week against alcohol and drug abuse with posters and simple lunchtime activities like musical chairs as a way of showing students they can have fun without drugs and alcohol. The program has also benefitted from extremely strong support from the Krop High administration.
“The program has helped the students make better choices themselves, and it’s helped them recognize other students that need help. There have been students that I didn’t realize were involved with drugs and alcohol, either through their own activities or the activities of a family member,” Ferreira says. “I think being involved has helped many of these students not only in the short-term, but it has also helped them to take on leadership roles in their adult lives.”
“Everyone” said it was impossible to involve kindergarteners in a Youth Crime Watch chapter.
“Not age appropriate,” they said.
At Ojus Elementary in Miami, for the past four years, the kindergarteners have proved “everyone” wrong.
Margie Love, faculty adviser to the Ojus Youth Crime Watch Program, includes one representative from each class, at every grade level, in the monthly club meetings. Each child then returns to his/her classroom the following day and explains the concepts addressed in the meeting and shares the information learned.
“All of the children, kindergarten included, can speak on any safety topic and they’re all very involved,” Love says. “The entire school is kept apprised on all the issues and on how to keep themselves safe both in their school and in their community.”
Love says because many of the children remain in the club for multiple years, she tries to come up with new presentations and ideas so the experience remains fresh: “Since I have experience with running an adult Neighborhood Watch Program, my idea is to groom them so they grow up to be adults who are inspired to be leaders.”
The types of presentations and activities that Love uses to keep things fresh include field trips to local police departments in Aventura, Hallandale, North Miami Beach and Miami-Dade, and to a nearby U.S. Coast Guard station; in-school presentations from those agencies that include (but are not limited to) “Eddie Eagle on gun safety;” honoring local law enforcement officers during First Responder Appreciation Week in January; presentations from the local FBI Field Office; on-site fingerprinting for local children and visits from therapy dogs and a local ham radio club.
Nearly 1,000 children participated in a Stop the Violence walk around school grounds during the program’s first year and members of the Youth Crime Watch participate in the annual North Miami Beach holiday parade to promote awareness of the program. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent representatives from Texas to do a presentation held in memory of Adam Walsh, and another major event took place in April 2015, when Florida Gov. Rick Scott, at Love’s invitation, came to the school as part of a presentation of a Medal of Honor to North Miami Beach Officer Lino Diaz, who had been shot and injured in the line of duty. The event included command staff from the Aventura, North Miami Beach and Miami-Dade police departments, and representatives of local government. (Other local police departments have also assisted the program, including Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Golden Beach, Sunny Isles Beach, Miami Gardens, North Miami, Bay Harbor Islands, Bal Harbour and Ft. Lauderdale.)
“Almost everything we do is in memory of the Sandy Hook first-graders killed in that massacre. We really studied what they did there that worked and have implemented strategies such as training our kindergarteners to move right into the bathroom when we have a drill,” Love says. “We will never forget those children, and I hope that programs like this one catch on nationally so that we will never have another tragedy like that one.”
Seeing something like Youth Crime Watch move to the national level is a hope and a dream for Love, who says she often tells her principal that “we can prepare these children so they’ll get the highest test scores, achieve the highest GPAs and go to the best colleges, and what good is any of that if they’re not safe? I think school systems across America should incorporate safety programs like ours into the curriculum and make it mandatory. Our world has changed and we have to change with it. We would be remiss if we didn’t prepare these children from the earliest age possible so that when they leave their homes they feel safe, confident and prepared.”
“If you ask me what is the most important thing I’ve done in my life, this is it. I want this to be my legacy,” she adds.