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Safety program focuses on kids building character
Students in the “Keepin’ it Straight” mentoring group at Albert Harris Elementary School work with two retired Martinsville police officers to build a bench for the school courtyard. Pictured (from left) are Steve Kendrick, fifth-graders MaKayla Hodge and Janiyah Benton, School Safety Counselor Lenny Noel, fourth-grader Kamron Hairston, fifth-grader Trejon Fuller, and fourth-grader Delvin Roberts. (Contributed photos)
A retired police officer is helping Martinsville students stay on the right path, thanks to a federal grant.
Lenny Noel was hired in January 2012 as a school safety counselor for Martinsville City Schools after the division, in partnership with the Martinsville Police Department, was awarded a $78,000 COPS Secure our Schools grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The grant covers security equipment such as cameras as well as counseling and prevention efforts to keep the school environment safer.
Since then, Noel has been working to help keep kids in school and speaking to elementary students about the importance of having good character, respecting others and preventing bullying.
He also has started a mentoring group at Albert Harris Elementary School, called “Keepin’ it Straight.” Noel works with the group of 16 students at least twice a week, emphasizing that “focus is the key to success.”
“It’s a talented little group,” Noel said. “We discuss proper etiquette and behavior. I stress having respect with their teachers and their peers.”
Albert Harris Elementary Principal Felicia Preston said the program targets “students who may just need a little extra attention,” and in less than a year, it has already shown results.
“Some have done a 180,” she said. If the students struggle, “they know who they can go to for help.”
Every Thursday, members can be seen in the school halls wearing their Sunday best: Dresses for the girls, collared shirts and slacks or even full suits for the boys.
“I have them do that because I think it helps build character,” Noel said. He teaches them that “the way you carry yourself and dress matters.”
“The best thing is when students come in dressed up on Thursdays. It shows they really do have respect for Mr. Noel and themselves,” Preston said. “They enjoy the positive attention that they get.”
Noel said he notices a change when the children dress up. “I tell them they’re setting an example for the younger kids. I’ve seen it rub off on some of the other kids in the school.”
Other students do take notice of the group. As Noel was talking to his mentoring students in the hall one recent Thursday, a little boy came up and asked if he could join.
The group does a variety of service projects. Last spring, they wrote an original school song and presented it at the end-of-year awards ceremony. This year, they have been building benches for the school courtyard with some help from retired police officer Steve Kendrick. They also plan to write and film an anti-bullying video. Soon, the group will start wearing “Keepin’ it Straight” shirts on Fridays.
Noel works on involving parents in their children’s success. “I try to make phone calls and check in with their parents and teachers,” he said of his mentees.
Fifth-grader Ashanti Thomas, who joined the group last school year, said, “We talk about bullying and how to treat people like they want to be treated.”
“I made some friends” in the group, said fourth-grader Delvin Roberts. “We sing. We record stuff, and we think about the music. … He tells us to pay attention.”
“We get to sing and do fun things,” fifth-grader Janiyah Benton said.
“I like it because I want to succeed,” fifth-grader Elijah Hairston said. He added that he has learned, “You’ve got to have respect and always do your best.”
Noel takes this message far beyond his small group of mentees. Part of his duties include using the Virginia Attorney General’s “Virginia Rules” curriculum to teach students about safety and abiding by the law. In one presentation to a fifth-grade class at Patrick Henry Elementary School earlier this school year, he covered everything from the importance of honesty to how their actions now can affect their future prospects as adults.
“Who has Facebook?” Noel asked the class. About 10 students raised their hands. “Whatever you write on Facebook, it’s out there forever,” he warned. “Eight years from now, when you try to get a job and they do a background check on you, you don’t want them seeing something bad that you posted online.”
Noel explained that when he was in the Navy applying for a job with top-secret security clearance at age 20, he went through an extensive background check. “They came back to Martinsville, talked to my old teachers, my neighbors. … Now, if I had been a bully, I would not have gotten a security clearance.”
He had advice for students, whether they are victims of bullying or bullies themselves.
“Bullying is serious,” Noel told the class, noting that 1,635 young people committed suicide in 2011 due to bullying. On the other side of the spectrum, boys who were bullies in middle school were found to be four times more likely to have a criminal conviction by age 24, he said.
If a student experiences bullying, he said, “You let your teachers know, you let your principal know, you let me know. We’re here to protect you.”
Martinsville City Schools has an anonymous online reporting system, called SafeShare 276, where students can report bullying, threats and other school safety issues. An online form can be found on the right column of www.martinsville.k12.va.us.
Noel also urged students to “get involved when you see it happen to someone else. If four or five of you walk up to the bully and say ‘Stop it,’” it can make a difference, he said. “That’s being a good Samaritan and a good citizen.”
He told students to never put their hands on someone else without permission, but remember that words hurt, too. “They don’t have to put their hands on you to be a bully. … When words come out of your mouth, you can’t take them back. You can apologize, but they’re always going to remember what you said.”
He also discussed how bullying or hurting others can lead to jail time. “When you’re in jail, we control your life. We tell you when you can eat, when you can sleep, what you wear,” he said, showing them an orange jumpsuit. “I don’t want to see any of you end up there. Do you want to be four-star, or do you want to be behind bars?”
Noel encouraged students to tell an adult if one of their peers does something wrong or illegal, and not to be scared of being called a “snitch.”
“That’s not being a snitch. That’s standing up for your rights,” he said. “Telling the truth is a lot easier than telling a lie. Just be honest. It’s a sign of good character.”