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Wearing his badge and the department's black uniform, Santa Rosa Police Lt. Ray Navarro stood before a classroom full of energetic fifth grade students on a recent afternoon.

"How can we show respect for people?" Navarro asked the class, then pointed to three 10-year-olds raising their hands.

"By recycling," said Zaira Pachuca Martinez.

"Stand up for others," Giovanni Gonzalez said.

"Be great and not join gangs," said Jonathan Ramirez.

The Santa Rosa Police Department is aiming its gang-prevention efforts at children as young as 9 years old by spending time in the classroom.

Based on a curriculum used across the country called the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program, or G.R.E.A.T., uniformed officers talk with children about a variety of issues: how to handle being angry; what to do when they witness bullying; or what to say when a friend pressures them into participating in an activity like writing graffiti.

The aim is to curb delinquent behavior and diminish the allure of gangs.

In 2012, 22 percent of all crimes involving firearms were linked to gangs, and 10 percent of all crimes committed in schools were gang-related, according to Santa Rosa Police statistics.

Since Navarro launched the program in Santa Rosa in 2011, officers have taught about 770 students in fifth- and seventh-grade classrooms in Santa Rosa City, Bellevue Union and Roseland school districts.

Supported by a state grant, police have taught the lessons at nine elementary and middle schools in neighborhoods where students are most likely to feel pressure to join gangs.

Although gang activity occurs throughout the city and its outskirts, the western and southern neighborhoods typically experience the bulk of gang-related crimes, said Sgt. Eric Goldschlag, who oversees the Police Department's gang unit.

Goldschlag said that when officers visit homes of known gang members, it's common to see family photos on display that show young children dressed up in gang colors and flashing gang signs.

"Some kids pick it up from friends, some from family members," Goldschlag said.

Either way, children are being indoctrinated when they are very young, often as early as age 10.

"That is just one of the reasons (visiting classrooms) is important for us," he said.

G.R.E.A.T. is based on curriculum started by Phoenix police and officers with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1991 that has been formalized into a program that trains officers across the country. Several Santa Rosa Police officers and a prosecutor with the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office have gone through the training.

Officers talk with students about bullying, respect for people who are different, how to communicate and how to deal with being angry, among other topics.

At Roseland Elementary on Nov. 21, Navarro had seven students read from a workbook, each playing a character in a scenario about a student who is making fun of kids participating in a community service project.

"She doesn't sound like she cares about her community," said Keomony Mimitte, 10.

At least two research studies have tried to address whether the G.R.E.A.T. curriculum actually works in deterring gang involvement, and the results have been mixed.

But the simple act of getting children used to talking with uniformed officers has significant value, said Khaalid Muttaqi, program manager of the Santa Rosa Mayor's Gang Prevention Task Force.

"A lot of times, kids are just seeing officers arresting people on the street, doing their jobs," Muttaqi said. "They don't see them as a teacher or a mentor. It's an opportunity to open their minds."

Over the years, Santa Rosa police have documented at least 46 different gangs in Sonoma County, ranging from groups affiliated with California's most prominent norte? and sure? gangs to white supremacists and much smaller and less active groups.

But the number of gang members is hard to pin down.

Sonoma County had three known gangs with 150 members in 1991, and that grew to more than 25 gangs with more than 3,000 total members in 2009, according to the City of Santa Rosa's website.

Goldschlag said that number has surely gone down, but by how much is unclear. Gangs do not publicly track their numbers, and many gang members will deny their involvement in an attempt to avoid getting stiffer sentences that can result from being convicted of a gang-related crime.

Also, gang crimes have decreased in the city over the past several years, and police suspect gang involvement also is down, Goldschlag said.

Gang-related crimes were down 11 percent during the first eight months of 2013, compared to the same period last year, according to the most recent police statistics available.

What appears to be a decline in gang activity has been echoed in the schools.

Roseland Elementary principal Dana Pedersen said that five years ago it was typical to have students showing up to school wearing gang-affiliated colors, flashing signs and demonstrating an interest in gangs. Now, that has all but disappeared from the school's hallways, she said.

"We were very challenged by it five years ago, but we don't see the signs anymore, the gang colors and symbols, at this age," she said.

Pedersen said she guessed the declined interest was due to a combination of decreasing crime rates and city-wide efforts to education children about the dangers of getting involved with gangs, of which the G.R.E.A.T. program is just one.

G.R.E.A.T. is one of the programs supported by a two-year $500,000 grant Santa Rosa received in 2012 called the California Gang Reduction, Intervention, and Prevention Grant, known as CalGRIP, which supports a county-wide approach to gang prevention.

Navarro said he has personally taught about 240 students since 2011.

"They follow the voice they hear the loudest, which is why it's so great to have uniformed officers on campus," Pedersen said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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