The Brandon School Division is poised to launch a new program for “at risk” youth who have had run-ins with the law.
The At Risk Youth Program will divert troubled students, including gang members, from city high schools but give them a chance at an education and access to other supports.
“That’s our responsibility is to provide academic programming for students across the spectrum,” BSD associate Supt. Greg Malazdrewicz said.
BSD officials stress that the program isn’t specifically for gang members or students involved in the justice system.
Board of trustees chairman Mark Sefton said it would also help students who are involved in the mental health system or social services, for example.
“It’s kids that are really at risk where the regular system just doesn't do the job for them,” Sefton said.
However, Malazdrewicz said gang members would be among those the program would serve.
And, he acknowledged the new program could divert “high-risk” students from the regular school system and alleviate the risk of other students being recruited into gangs.
Funding for the program was approved as part of last year’s school division budget.
Provincial funding for another project freed up some money for this one, Malazdrewicz said.
He estimates it will cost $80,000 to $100,000 per year to run, but that cost will be offset by the fact that the program will hopefully keep kids in school and allow the division to continue to collect enrolment funding from the province.
For now, the focus will be on students who are 16 to 18 years old.
There are 10 potential candidates already, but the program could eventually serve 15 to 25 students.
That includes a number of youth who are currently in custody who will attend the program once they're released, Malazdrewicz said.
Otherwise, other youth could be referred from their high schools immediately.
Malazdrewicz said the program would help students who have serious matters before the justice system.
For example, one 16-year-old who was considered for the program was sentenced in court recently on charges that included assault, uttering threats and break and enter.
At the time of the offences he was a self-admitted member of the Manitoba Warriors Street gang, although he claims to have since left the gang.
One teacher is assigned to the program and there will be a classroom located in a division-owned building downtown, on Princess Avenue.
Malazdrewicz said the program’s format will help avoid any potential conflicts between students.
They’ll have intensive one-on-one tutorial time and work time, but also independent time away from the classroom.
That should also prevent any gang-involved students from using the program to network and reinforce gang behaviour.
The multi-agency approach should give students the help they need to free themselves from gangs, Malazdrewicz said.
The program will also provide students with easier access to community supports such as probation, the John Howard Society and the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba.
In general, schools are known to be potential recruiting grounds for street gangs.
According to courtroom accounts, there have been a number of gang-related incidents at Crocus Plains Regional Secondary School in recent years.
In September 2011, two students got in a scuffle in the school’s hallway. The fight began after gang signals were flashed, court heard.
In May 2012, a 15-year-old girl who claimed to be a member of the Manitoba Warriors street gang caused the school to be evacuated when she pulled the fire alarms because she was angry.
Last September, a 17-year-old got in a fight with a Crocus Plains student, a fight witnessed by more than 80 students.
The teen claimed that he was fighting another gang member.
There was another gang-related scrap outside the school in October.
One Crocus Plains student said she likes the idea of a separate location where gang members can study. It might put an end to some of the fighting, she said.
“That would be smart,” said the student, who added that she finds the “packs” of gang members a little intimidating. “I do know a bunch of gang members here and it’s kind of awkward walking around them.”
She said the gangs at Crocus Plains include the Indian Posse, Manitoba Warriors and the Bloodz.
Some aren’t shy about letting others know their gang status, she said. And the gang presence in the school has led to violence and attempts to recruit other students.
She said that four to five Crocus Plains students were recently beaten in the school parking lot as part of a gang initiation into the Manitoba Warriors.
Apparently, the gang members then decided they didn’t want all of the new recruits, so two or three were “beat out” again.
The student said Manitoba Warriors members tried to recruit her, but she refused. All she suffered for her refusal was some name-calling.
Sefton said that Crocus Plains isn’t the only school where the influence of gang culture is a concern.
“That is a concern of ours in a number of our schools,” Sefton said. “Not just Crocus, certainly the other two high schools, but also even some kids as young as Grade 7 or 8. Some of them are kind of fascinated by the gang life as depicted by older brothers or sisters.”