All eyes were on a 6th grade boy at Glenridge Elementary School while a county official talked to his class about bullying. Yolonda Evans, Prince George's County Department of Corrections spokeswoman, asked him why everyone was looking at him.
He pretended ignorance, but the class didn't let it drop. Answering for him, they blurted out, "Because he bullies," Evans said.
After class, Evans said he called her aside and told her, "I think that I might bully people because I get angry."
He said, "I don't want to bully," Evans recalled.
On Tuesday, the 6th grader, along with 161 students from Glenridge Elementary School, pledged out loud with their right hands raised:
"I will not bully others, I will remain drug free, and I will remain gang free," Evans said.
The students are the newest class to pass the department's six-week mentoring program, COPES (Correctional Officers Protecting and Educating Students).
"It definitely reaches some of the kids," Evans said.
Bullying was not on the agenda when the Prince George's Department of Corrections and its officers' union started the program in 2005. Its original focus was drugs, gangs and peer pressure. Bullying, including cyberbullying, was added in the past couple of years because of its prevalence, Evans said.
"We're with the Department of Corrections, so our goal is to decrease our population," she said.
COPES aims to stop problems before they begin and targets children just before they head into middle school, according to Evans.
"We don't want to put a band-aid on what's already going on. We want to prevent it from happening," Evans said.
Fourteen officers work in pairs in the mentoring program. They talk about goals and how using drugs or joining a gang is not going to help students reach goals, like becoming a marine biologist. This was the aim of a recent class member, Evans said.
Glenridge Principal Dr. Gloria McCoy said the lessons COPES teaches help students build the capacity to make good decisions and avoid peer pressure.
The next COPES class will start in spring and take place at a Prince George's County school to be determined, Evans said.
That decision lies in the future. For Tuesday, Evans was busy basking in the day, and memories of 161 students who took a bold stand, including one particular 6th grader who she presented with the gift of a stress ball.
He stood in front of the same classmates who had once pointed him out as a bully, this time he wore a big smile. As the gift flew through the air, tossed his way by Evans—he reached out and caught the ball.