Leadership Series: Keeping today’s kids from becoming tomorrow’s gangsters

Jordan Buna speaks to a group of Surrey teens about his experience with gang life.
Jordan Buna speaks to a group of Surrey teens about his experience with gang life. Janet Brown / CKNW

Steering kids away from gangs in our schools takes leadership and that’s what the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU) of B.C., the province’s integrated anti-gang unit, is doing.

CKNW’s Janet Brown spoke with some of the police officers and educators working with the region’s youth in a bid to stop today’s kids from becoming tomorrow’s gangsters.

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“We recognized years ago that the leadership we need to take in the community and especially with our younger population goes beyond our traditional roles as police agencies, those being supression, disruption and enforcement,” CFSEU S/Sgt Lindsey Houghton said.

Instead, Houghton said, police are working to place a higher value on prevention, engagement and education.

“So back in 2013, when we developed and launched our anti-gang life initiative, we recognized at the earliest stages that if we’re going to stop young people from thinking that it’s okay to sell a bit of dope or it’s okay to aspire to become gang members – and some of the more well-known gang members that are unfortunately household names in our communities – we need to get in there and we need to talk to them,” Houghton said.

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“We need to engage them in their environment and have very honest and real conversations with them and show them the realities because there are all of these myths that are out there and we need to pull back the veil, if you will, and show them what truly happens and what this life is really about.”

From Houghton’s perspective, that means stepping things up beyond merely sending officers into classrooms or school assemblies.

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Instead, police have turned to people like Jordan Buna, a former gangster who’s seen the dark reality of gang life first hand.

WATCH: Surrey WRAP program helping teens

Variety Week: Surrey WRAP program helping teens
Variety Week: Surrey WRAP program helping teens

Buna works with the Surrey wraparound (WRAP) program, an initiative that targets at-risk youth with services and mentorship in order to help them keep their lives on track.

“It’s something where you built relationships with these kids,” Buna said.

“The people who work in WRAP and the really exciting thing about WRAP is that we are paired with the Surrey RCMP, so not only do they build positive connections with school district staff through the mentorship and the example of positive behaviour and activities, but they also get a close connection with the RCMP officers who work with us as well, who are always great role models for the kids.”

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From Buna’s perspective as a former gang insider, the importance of having positive role models in the school setting can’t be overstated.

“It is paramount, it is unbelievably important. A lot of these kids are going to get this information about gangs, and about their involvement in the drug trade and the glamorization of the lifestyle that goes along with gangs,” he said.

“They’re going to get this information anyways through older brothers or friends who are involved in the drug trade, they get this messaging from a variety of media sources so it’s really important for us to provide a counter-narrative and a counter message to the things that are out there for these young people.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Buna added that it’s possible programs like WRAP could have helped him from ending up running with gangs.

“That’s a question I get a lot, and I can tell you there’s a very good chance it would have,” he said. “When I was going to school, we didn’t talk a lot about gangs, we didn’t talk a lot about choices.”

WATCH: Surrey’s anti-gang program having a positive impact

Surrey’s anti-gang program having a positive impact
Surrey’s anti-gang program having a positive impact

Buna said modern programs that have him and police going into schools serve a dual purpose: they show kids just how dangerous the gang lifestyle can be, while giving them a chance to meet RCMP officers and develop a positive relationship.

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“So, keeping these kids connected and realizing that there is a better life out there for them, yeah, I really wish it had been more of a focus when I had been going to school.”

Sgt. Mike Sanchez is with the Surrey RCMP Gang Enforcement Team, which has been working with the CFSEU on anti-gang messaging for the past year.

“What we found is that we were getting a lot of requests from the schools to actually start building relationships with the kids,” he said.

“A lot of these kids were missing a lot of mentorship in their lives and by coming in as the gang unit, we came in with the uniform, we came in where kids were actually looking up to us. So we use that, and we started doing outreach within the schools namely after school with the kids 12 through 14.”

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With Surrey growing as quickly as it is, many immigrant families are arriving and facing the challenges of integration, language and work. As a result, Sanchez said, their kids are often left on their own, without a stable adult figure involved in their everyday lives.

“Especially the 13 and 14-year-olds,” Sanchez said.

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“So the schools have been good at identifying groups of these kids that they believe are at risk, and we’ve been invited to work with them in a mentorship role during after-school programs.”

That’s crucial, Sanchez said, because gangs are adept at preying on – and recruiting new members from – vulnerable groups of youth just like this.

“A lot of these kids when they come to school, and then they’re expected to return home during that crucial time after school, we’ve had cases where kids have been approached by groups that are operating within these gangs to come and work with them.”