CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - There's a program in two Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) schools called SAVE, which stands for "Safeguard. Atone. Validate. Educate."
"We get people to see them as human beings. We get these kids to see each other as human beings, not animals," said organizer Cedric Dean. "What happens a lot of times is they're treated in a way, they're spoken to like animals. We get them to learn how to look at you and see you as that human being and say what if that was me."
Thursday morning, the program graduated its first class of students at Thomasboro Academy.
Dean says the "character education development" curriculum came to Thomasboro and MLK School at the beginning of the year when he "asked for the kids that's the most trouble so we can work with them on behavior problems."
At Thomasboro Academy, 15 students from grades six, seven, and eight were chosen.
"They're at the perfect age – because they're at the very impressionable age to where someone could easily give them a thousand dollars a day and have them doing whatever," Dean said.
So far this year, Charlotte has seen several juveniles and teenagers arrested for murder.
"I was at the wrong place at the wrong time really," said 14-year-old Antoine Shankle. "They shot and I just ran off."
Antoine didn't kill anyone, but he remembers a time when the streets called and he answered.
"Stuff I had no business doing, like talking to the wrong people and stuff like that," he said. "Had bad grades, below C average. At that time I was really cool with it because I didn't know any better, but I just decided to come in one day - I want to change that."
Antoine turned away from the streets and joined the SAVE program at Thomasboro.
"I learned a lot – how people really care about me. I really learned that you got to present yourself well," he told WBTV.
Anti-violence activists say some of the trouble on the streets start on social media. Organizers of the SAVE program say their message about changing behaviors has to be everywhere - not just in schools.
"That why we're going to be on social media so hard because once I put up a little gang sign, I throw it up now I gotta to clap back and that's where we're losing them," Dean said. "Once we're able to get them to start following us instead of following a few then we're going to win but it's going to take everybody."
15 students who were once identified as 'trouble' became the program's first graduates at their school.
"Today is a big day really - a lot of emotions," Antoine said. "I'm not going to let somebody throw me off my path that I done worked hard for."
It was a big enough day that some Charlotte Mecklenburg Police officers and Chief Kerr Putney attended the graduation.
"My thing is this – anybody that's running towards bullets that's willing to put their life on the line to save you - can never be your enemies," Dean said, "but the person that's gonna kill you is the one telling you to hate them. That's why our partnership and relationship with CMPD is so important."