Ex-New York gang members and police officers start UK school tour - 16 January 2008

 A programme in which ex-gang members and police officers talk of their experiences in school assemblies comes to the UK for the first time this week.

In the past year, youth and gang violence have become issues of national concern. In London alone 27 teenagers were murdered in 2007. Breaking the Cycle, which started in the United States in response to the Columbine high school massacre, will tour UK schools to show young people that violence is not the solution to their problems. The programme stresses honest communication and forgiveness as a way of resolving conflicts.

After speaking at dozens of schools, mostly in the New York area, ex-gang member Sergio Argueta, Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum and author Christoph Arnold will speak to thousands of young people in this country. Breaking the Cycle hopes to build on its success in the United States by finding UK speakers on this topic.

Sergio Argueta, age 29, knows gang life from the inside - two of his close friends were killed in gang violence. He says: "I loved gangs - I loved the support, the caring, the protection. I thought I was part of a brotherhood..." Then as gang leader, Sergio planned a drive-by shooting in retaliation for his friend's murder. As a result of Sergio's decisions, his best friend was sentenced to 12 years in prison for killing a man with a shotgun after they were jumped by members of a rival gang. Sergio realized that his life had to change.

He earned a master's degree in social work and founded a grassroots organization dedicated to educating young people on the importance of resisting gang life and its devastating effects. Using his remarkable public speaking skills, Sergio has spoken throughout the United States. He is one of the leading experts on gang violence in New York State.

Christoph Arnold is a teen counsellor and author of many books on education, raising children, suffering, peace, dealing with violence, and forgiveness. He relates real stories of people he has met over decades of counselling teens, prison inmates, veterans, and families.

Sheriff Paul Van Blarcum is a 30-year veteran of the Ulster County police department in New York. He has put into motion a county-wide Drug and Gang Task Force as well as a sex-offender location programme. Paul is a strong advocate of making communities safer with more 'feet on the street'. His background includes a 1998 tour of service for the United Nations International Police Task Force in war-torn Bosnia in the former Yugoslavia.

Superintendent Phil Morgan of the Newham Police will be attending the launch. He said: "Newham Borough Police are committed to reducing youth violence in all its forms. Breaking the Cycle student assemblies will address bullying, disrespect and hopelessness with a most positive message of reconciliation and forgiveness. Every borough of London would benefit from this kind of investment in the future of our young people."

Breaking the Cycle will launch in the UK with an assembly for St Bonaventure's RC School students on Thursday at St Antony's Church, Forest Gate, Newham, East London.

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