It’s October 2020 and a 911 call comes in from a Jacksonville high school: A student had been shot on campus.
As first responders rushed one 18-year-old student to the hospital, police put another in handcuffs. The injured teen survived.
Ribault High School principal Dr. Gregory Bostic told parents and reporters he was upset about violence on the campus he serves.
“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I can even say that I’m angry.”
You might be surprised to hear the student who brought the gun to school isn’t in prison. Instead, Chris, who asked us not to reveal his full name, is in a program to get him on the right track.
This is all thanks to a pastor who was once on a similarly violent path.
Meet Pastor Garland Scott
Pastor Garland Scott was reluctant to interview with our Solutionaries team because he’s been working in the shadows of the community for decades, building trust with those who don’t trust anyone.
“I interrupt violence. I find an alternative for a violent lifestyle,” he said of his mission.
He’s a man of God who used to be a man of crime, in Brooklyn, New York’s toughest streets.
“I just had to break bones,” he said. “If you didn’t pay the bill, they sent me. My name was Big Buck, because I didn’t give a (expletive). And I was equipped for the job. I started when I was 12. And I did it till I was 27.”
He escaped that life by fleeing for his life. He moved to Florida in the 1990s after someone tried to kill him. Along the way, he found faith.
His life’s journey is a lesson he passes on to young men and women on the wrong path.
What does he tell them?
“I’m here to keep you safe, alive and not in prison,” he said, pointing out that conversations with the teens are confidential. “I’m not interested in the case. I’m only here to keep you safe.”
He’s not a police officer, but works with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, specifically the violent crimes and gang units, in what’s called “JSO Operation Safe Passage.”
Jacksonville has a high violent crime rate with over 30 documented gangs, 570-plus gang members and more than 120 murders each year.
So what’s the solution?
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So our Solutionaries team asked what you think would lower violence in your community.
“Signs all over the neighborhood advising who to contact if you want to get out of a gang or life of crime,” said Carmen, a viewer who wrote in.
“Get the parents involved. They should always know who the children are hanging with and what they are doing,” another viewer Linda told us.
“We have a generation of men who did not grow up with their fathers,” added reader Barry. “The culture, regardless of race, of broken homes, needs to change.”
Pastor Scott’s approach incorporates all this, so is it a better solution for troubled teens? Can it keep them out of prison and away from reoffending? That’s what we’re examining in our latest episode of Solutionaries.
Hope and Hammer
Scott’s approach is called “the Hope and the Hammer.” The hope is for a better life, a rewarding career. That’s the pastor’s job to preach.
The hammer comes from the police officers flanking him when they go door to door trying to make contact with gang members and those involved in or at risk for violence. That message? Keep causing trouble and you’ll end up behind bars or dead. Scott leaves a letter and contact information for them to get in touch.
In the past six years, as of October, Scott and his team have contacted 935 young people. He said about two in five call back asking for help. Scott connects those who respond with valuable, life-changing resources.
“I can say it boldly, pretty much everything. We have 130-something outreach supporters, from Juvenile Justice to DCF to Job Corps to welding, Local 596 welding iron workers,” Scott said. “We have higher education. We have, first of all, mental health specialists.”
Scott said they have a good record, but he doesn’t stop to relish it.
“We got about a 40% success rate where they are productive citizens,” he said. “They’re not shooting and they’re not getting shot. And we don’t celebrate it. We just keep plowing along. You’re only as great as your last success. So if you start getting all excited, you stop.”
And what about those who don’t believe in investing in teens caught up in a life of crime?
“They don’t understand value,” Scott said. “Value is contingent upon rarity. Rocks are not valuable because they are everywhere. Diamonds are valuable because they have a special cut to them. If we can get to them before they get to that next level, we can get them on a totally different course.”
What about Chris?
When we met Chris, it had been three years since the shooting at Ribault High School that threatened to ruin his life.
“I’m just working on getting my life back,” he said as he talked with us outside of the Duval County Jail.
He was shy, polite and fairly open about the trouble he got into and the struggles after.
“I was depressed. I was sad,” he said. “Wish I could have never done that.”
He told us he was on the school’s football team and not in a gang, adding he had no intention of hurting anyone. However, he admits he was living a high-risk life.
“My life turned around when I decided I didn’t want to do years in prison,” he said. “Then, I met Garland Scott.”
With Scott’s help, prosecutors have diverted Chris’ charges in favor of community service. He’s gotten a job, he’s in the gym training to potentially play college football and he doesn’t miss an invitation to have a meal with his mentor.
So, is life better on the good side as compared to a life of crime?
“Way better,” Chris said with a smile. “Like, way better.”
Chris is just one of hundreds of success stories, which many see as a solution to America’s gun violence problem. He put down the gun and picked up a positive life.
Scott said the approach is working, but points out there are limitations when young people are exposed to violence all around them. He said he’s not giving up in his push to change lives and make the streets safer for everyone.
This article is part of “Solutionaries,” our continuing commitment to solutions journalism, highlighting the creative people in communities working to make the world a better place, one solution at a time. Find out what you can do to help at SolutionariesNetwork.com.