April 12, 2006
Riverhead Supervisor Phil Cardinale announced last week that yet another step has been taken in the town's proactive stance against gang violence.
Riverhead's Central School District has been awarded an $11,000 grant to be administered by the Town of Riverhead from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, said Cardinale. The grant will be used to expand the town's existing Council for Unity program to the Riverhead Middle School program.
The Council for Unity is a New York City-based-organization with a 30-year history of promoting inter-group relations and reducing violence in schools and communities. Its concept was born from the seeds of discontent that flourished in 1970s Brooklyn at John Dewey High School, as racial discord simmered amongst students. Robert DeSena, a former English teacher, was able to approach the leaders of warring factions and bring them together in his shared vision of the Council for Unity.
In Riverhead, the council is a curriculum-based, for-credit class offered for the first time last year at Riverhead High School. The class followed on the heels of the program's kick-off program, when Council for Unity was brought to RHS as an after-school club to deal with issues, such as gang activity, head-on.
This year, the program flowered further with the birth of a Council for Unity at Pulaski Street Elementary School as part of the school district's proactive approach to targeting gang violence.
"You've got upwards of 100 kids from all different cultures committed to unity, safety, and peace," said DeSena.
And that's not all: In addition to a Council for Unity program in the middle school, there are plans for chapters in the police department, the Riverhead jail, and a branch for concerned community members and parents. It is also anticipated that funding will be utilized to institute the council at the Timothy Hill Children's Ranch.
"This thing is like a runaway freight car," said DeSena. "Right now in our entire network, there is no community that is using this model to greater effect than Riverhead. It's become a learning laboratory for all new programs going forward, as to how you can bring about the kind of desired social changes you want to see."
At last week's Gang Awareness 103 seminar in Wading River [see page 1]. DeSena discussed how Riverhead has become a model for communities such as Brentwood, Central Islip, and others in Nassau County.
"I am pleased that the town was able to assist the school district in obtaining this important grant," said Cardinale. "By all accounts, the Council for Unity program has been very effective and its success will continue to grow with the expansion of the program."
Superintendent Paul Doyle said he was "pleased with the continuing partnership between the town and the school district in working together to positively affect the youth of our community."
The Council for Unity program has existed in Riverhead for three years. Approximately 220 students have participated in the program, which has resulted in a decrease in discipline referrals and improved academic performance by participants.
The program has also enabled school district personnel to develop relationships with students to redirect negative behavior and help students to peacefully mediate disputes and prevent violence.
The grant was awarded at the direction of Senator Ken LaValle as a result of a presentation by Theresa Drozd, Anti-Violence Coordinator for the Riverhead Central School District. Jennifer Mesiano, the Town of Riverhead's Grant Coordinator, will coordinate the administration of the grant.