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Police take anti-gang message to sophomores
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Lukas Carroll lays motionless on the ground while a team of firefighters and paramedics – their outlines hazy from the exhaust in the cold morning air – work relentlessly to save his young teenage life.

Hundreds of his schoolmates filter past the yellow caution tape and into the Sierra High School gymnasium wonder what exactly is going on in the parking lot.

And while the entire scene is a staged event intended to simulate what gang violence leads to, the message – delivered just moments after the startling scene is revealed to every Sierra High sophomore – is loud and clear.

Everyone has a “right to choose.”

The assembly, put on by the Manteca Police Department with the blessing of the Manteca Unified School District, strives to inform young people about what can happen when they stray down the road of gangs, drugs, alcohol and peer pressure – all things that are within arm’s reach of most high school students in America.

According to Manteca Police Gang Awareness Officer Jason Hensley, the assembly is designed to target sophomores because many of them are still young enough to be able to make the choice about what they’re going to do in the future.

“A lot of times when a juvenile is a junior or senior they’ve already made up their mind about what they want to be and how they want to be seen. We can still reach them, but it takes more work,” said Hensley. “With 10th graders, they’re still focused on school and their friends, and if we can get that message in to them early, then hopefully we can prevent them from going down the wrong path.”

And Hensley had some pretty convincing emcees to help hammer the point home.

Pastor Joe Macias of the Christian Worship Center – who was serving in his capacity Thursday morning as a Manteca Police Department chaplain – spoke openly about how anybody can choose to do anything, but those who make the right choices often get to reap the rewards.

“We’re here today to let this generation know that they have the right to choose,” Macias said. “Anyone can tell you what you do or how you should think or what you should think, but each person has the right to say yes to the right things in their life, and with that they have the ability to reach their goals.”

Fellow Manteca Police Chaplain Andre Hillery – who delivered a custom-written rap about getting caught up in the gang lifestyle – spoke from personal experience.

“I know what it’s like to grow up and take that wrong path, and it’s not something that’s easy to turn around and change,” said Hillery. “I want to tell them that I’ve been where you’re trying to go and it’s not pretty, and I’m here to help you shut the door on that so you can have a life where you can be happy.”

So far the “Right To Choose” assembly has played through at Lathrop, East Union and now Sierra high schools, and according to Hensley, plans are in the works to bring them to Manteca and Weston Ranch later on this school year so that every sophomore student is exposed to the message.