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Fighting Violence With Music At Brooklyn High Schools

On a single day in January, two students were shot outside the Grand Street campus of high schools in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and another student was charged with assaulting a peer with a loaded .38 caliber firearm.

Brooklyn high-school students rehearse on stage before a talent show on April 17. The students are participants in the program ‘My School Has Rhythm Not Violence,’ an initiative by the New York Police Department’s school safety division./ MARK ABRAMSON

Brooklyn high-school students rehearse on stage before a talent show on April 17. The students are participants in the program ‘My School Has Rhythm Not Violence,’ an initiative by the New York Police Department’s school safety division./ MARK ABRAMSON

The alarming incidents prompted the usual responses, such as an increased presence on the campus by the New York Police Department’s school safety division, responsible for keeping the peace among the city’s 1.1 million public students.

But it also led officials to resurrect a dormant anti-violence program that is part “Scared Straight,” part “American Idol.” Classes about violence with about 200 students from 13 north Brooklyn high schools were spun off into songs and raps by the students, culminating in a talent show Friday night.

“Sometimes you have to go to what they like, to get them to interact with you,” said assistant chief Brian Conroy, who heads the NYPD school safety division, as he watched participants rehearse Wednesday. “This is one that’s a little unique. And it’s been a hit with the kids.”

The program, “My School Has Rhythm Not Violence,” returns at a time of strained relations between the NYPD and some communities after months of street protests about police conduct nationwide. And while it is too soon to gauge its impact, the initiative appears to have created at least a small connection between officers and a key constituency.

Since March, school safety community outreach staff have met with students selected by school principals for their musical background or because they have behavioral issues, said school safety sergeant Carolynn McMillan.

Students attended five 90-minute classes during one week. The classes were split in half, with school safety agents lecturing about gang violence, drugs or conflict resolution, then dividing the teens into groups to create positive rap lyrics, songs or spoken word performances. Students have been rehearsing and holding elimination rounds at their schools before the talent show.

Said Ms. McMillan, “I’m not going to say it was a fix-it-all. But the program was so positive because by day three…the kids are literally running to hug us.”

Organizers said they have unearthed an array of talent, from a Mozart-playing pianist to a musical prodigy who could play six instruments.

And some of the students appear to have bonded with the school safety officers. At Wednesday’s rehearsal, Mr. Conroy gestured to the stage and laughed, “That must be ‘Little G’ up there!”

Dana Gascot—stage-name “Little G”—is a tiny and talented 16-year-old student from Brooklyn Lab High School. She steers clear of trouble to focus on rapping, but has been touched by violence, she said: She knows gang members at the school, and one of her uncles was shot and paralyzed in recent weeks.

“I feel like we’re sending out a positive message,” Ms. Gascot said. “And this class has given me a whole lot of encouragement.”

Lieutenant Gaby Celiba, head of the community outreach unit that devised and runs the program acknowledged that gaining the students’ trust—and getting them to rap without using curse words—were challenging.

The finished songs spoke to the harsh realities of the youngsters’ lives. Participant Onyx Walker, 17, rapped at a rehearsal, “I got a homie/he ovedose on codeine….He’s got a lot of things/he need to take his mind off.”

Students from Franklin K. Lane campus sang lyrics urging “put the gun down” and “I don’t want to be another victim screaming ‘I can’t breathe’” —likely a reference to the last words of Eric Garner, the unarmed Staten Island man who died following an apparent police chokehold.

Teens participating in the program, which was launched in 2008 but not used in recent years, will perform Friday night for a judging panel at Boys and Girls High School. Prizes for the winners included a trophy from Teamster’s Local 237, the school safety agents’ union, a $25 spending card from the Municipal Credit Union and a tour of R&B station Radio 103.9 in Manhattan

Demetrius “Joey” Jordan, 17, an aspiring rapper at Academy of Innovative Technology who grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said that “the basic kid from the ‘hood” view of the police is of an enemy.

“You understand that,” he added. “I heard a couple people say the police are the biggest gang in America.”

But Mr. Jordan said getting guidance through the program from Shawn Carter, a street-wise school safety agent from Brownsville, had changed his mind-set.

“Don’t be a product of your environment, let the environment be a product of you,” Mr. Jordan said he learned from his mentor.

Mr. Carter, a tattooed 37-year-old who said he had been through “a whole load of stuff” and lost friends to gang violence, lauded the course’s core component.

“Music is a universal language,” he said.

Fighting Violence With Music At Brooklyn High Schools.

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