Lakeland attempts to curb gang violence in schools - WFLA News Channel 8

Lakeland attempts to curb gang violence in schools

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SRO Lori Edwards SRO Lori Edwards
LAKELAND, FL (WFLA) - Lakeland Police believe they have an effective way of taking care of the problem with street gangs - tackling the issue in schools.

A Friday night murder marked the 23rd gang-related shooting in the city since last January. It’s a disturbing number that has police expanding their audience for gang awareness education.

Rochelle School of the Arts School Resource Officer Lori Edwards gets teary-eyed when she goes through the letters and crafts former students have made her. Spending several hours a day with them during their primary-school years, she sometimes feels like they are her own.

"A lot of them call me Mom," Edwards said. "And I’m okay with that."

And like a mother, she wants to protect them from the temptations she knows they face when the bell rings.

"We don't necessarily have things happening in our schools, but we know it's in the neighborhoods and it has some potential to have some blowback," she said.

Edwards is one of the eight SRO’s in the City of Lakeland who works inside the schools with the students. From eating lunch with them, to talking about their home-life, part of the role is building a rapport so that the students understand they can trust law enforcement.

The disturbing trend of younger children making gang signs with their hands or drawing symbols that represent certain known gangs has police changing some ways they work with students.

While school resource officers have been in place a while, they're now spending time with teachers, showing them ways to recognize clues that may prompt a conversation with a parent.

"For the time these kids are in school, the teachers are the parents," School Resource Officer Supervisor Sgt. Richard Rose said. "So we're going to take the first step in educating them and giving them the tools to recognize problems and maybe better communicate with these parents."

And they're relying heavily on what comes from the rapport that's built between SROs and students. The trust can lead to tips that solve crime, and keep kids out of trouble.

"We have to catch them young and let them know that this isn't the lifestyle that they want to get into the things they want to be doing and the road it's going to take them down," Edwards said.

Edwards said the main problem comes in the elementary students who are younger siblings of gang members. They idolize they're older brother or sister and simply want to be like them.

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