Mirrors Programme will expand into middle schools
Schoolchildren are to be taught how to ignore the growing pressure to become gang members locked in Bermuda’s deadly feud.
Hundreds of at-risk youngsters aged 11 to 14 are to learn gang resistance skills as part of the refocus of the Government-run Mirrors programme.
The eight-month mentoring programme will teach children how to say “no” to outside pressures and how to resolve conflict without resorting to violence. The aim is to reach out to children at all five middle schools before they are lured into the Island’s gang warfare, which has seen 16 gun murders since May 2009.
Parents will also be encouraged to watch who their children are socialising with and told how to recognise the telltale signs of gang membership, such as gang clothing, colours and signs.
The programme looks set to be rolled out next year after Minister of Youth, Families and Sport Glenn Blakeney revealed that Mirrors had to target younger children before they made “destructive lifestyle choices” that could ruin their lives.
Kimberley Jackson, Mirrors programme coordinator, said children were being recruited to gangs at an earlier age with some being forced into membership through threats, intimidation or peer pressure.
She said: “Prevention should begin at the earliest possible level as children are now being targeted at a much earlier age. It’s getting to the point that the very nature of where children live and who they associate with means they are attached to a certain gang.
“It’s playing a part in the lives of children as they are getting caught up in gangs whether they like it or not. We will build up the resistance skills of children to stop them being pulled into gangs. We will let them know they have a choice and also make sure parents are aware of what is going on”.
The Coaching For Success pilot programme took place last year at Sandys Secondary and Whitney Institute Middle Schools and saw 94 percent of 111 students passing the fourth quarter school exams.
This year’s programme, which started in October, involves a total of 83 pupils from the same two middle schools.
Children take part in an intensive three-day workshop before being paired with ‘education coaches’ who meets them weekly for eight months.
The programme promotes a zero tolerance attitude to gang membership by teaching children not just to say no, but how to say no.
It also aims to strengthen educational achievements by giving the youngsters direction in life and informing them of their future opportunities. Parents are also invited to attend workshops every other month.
It is said to be a general programme for those children referred by teachers, parents or school counsellors, but becomes “very reactionary” if a specific need is identified.
It was agreed to change the focus of the cash-strapped Mirrors programme after it became one of the victims of sweeping Budget cuts in February and was allocated $1.7 million for this fiscal year, a drop of 34 percent on last year.
Mirrors was launched in 2007 with the motto ‘to transform our community one person at a time’. But this year’s June residential programme for 15 to 18-year-olds was called off and the November residential was deferred at the last-minute.
Ms Jackson said: “We’ve agreed to change our focus. It’s going to be excellent for the programme, especially as we are working on changing the environment within our community.
“We are expecting to get great results with younger children so that we can have an effect on their lives before they go to high school.
“We want to try to stop the gang-related, territorial behaviour that we are seeing so much of. We want to challenge this controlling neighbourhood posse way of life”.
Ms Jackson has recently met Minister Blakeney and Community Development Minister Michael Weeks to discuss the future of the Mirrors programme.
Ms Jackson said it would be “a significant change” for Mirrors but staff were ready to turn in the new direction to meet the demands of Bermuda’s changing environment.
She said a similar Coaching For Success programmes could be run in conjunction with primary schools, prisons and sports teams.
Ms Jackson said talks with the private sector were continuing to try to fund future residential programmes for 15 to 18-year-olds.
However, the Government’s budget restraints means that Mirrors will no longer work with young people aged 19 to 24.
Ms Jackson said Mirrors “never met its capacity” with this age group so these people will now be directed toward the Job Corps programme.