OAKLAND — The children filling the gymnasium at Fruitvale Elementary School were young enough to trip over one another in their rush to the stage, and to scream with appreciation for the police officers who had spent the past few months giving them every reason to stay out of gangs.
But even at 10 and 11, many of them are old enough to know firsthand about the violence that tempts so many Oakland youths to join a dangerous brotherhood in search of protection.
Javier Perez, 11, said he once thought a gang could shield him from being bullied or jumped. "I thought it was a really cool thing," he said, after the graduation ceremony.
Javier and his classmates said Oakland would be a far more peaceful place if more kids went through the Oakland Police Department's Gang Resistance Education and Training program (GREAT), which trained 600 students at 11 Oakland public elementary and middle schools this year.
They said they learned to treat others as they want to be treated and to walk away when someone tries to pick a fight. They learned that gang members endanger their families as well as themselves, and that even those who don't lose their lives could end up in jail or with life-changing injuries.
"Now. I calm myself down every time somebody tries to fight me," Javier said, adding that he is picking fewer fights these days.
Javier said he experienced a terrifying moment last year when he and two friends were chased home
"It was a scary story for me," he added. "I hope it doesn't ever happen again."
Jakell Watts, 12, listened gravely as Javier recounted the experience. "That's what bullies are, basically," Jakell said, afterward. "They get picked on, and then they pick on somebody else."
Earlier that day at the graduation, Officer JuMaal Hill told the students that middle school would test their ability to make wise decisions. "A lot more doors will be opened," he warned them.
Jakell, Javier and other Fruitvale fifth-graders said they were certain the training would help them avoid the lure of gangs. But they said they worried about a few of their peers — including a handful of children who walked onstage that afternoon.
"They don't listen," said D'Angelo Lott, 11, "because they're already in it, and their mom or dad don't care what they do."