Gangs

A significant factor contributing to a climate of fear and intimidation in schools is the presence of youth gangs in the community and at school. Based on a 1995 national survey of 4,000 local law enforcement agencies in urban, rural, and suburban areas, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are as many as 23,000 youth gangs in the United States with more than 660,000 members. The existence of youth gangs has been reported in all 50 States.14

The fear associated with gangs is related to such student-expressed concerns as the following:

Bullet Fearing gang disruptions at school or in the neighborhood.
Bullet Encountering gang members on the way to and from school.
Bullet Anticipating violence from known gang members enrolled at school.
Bullet Receiving specific threats or being harassed by gang members who stake out territory on school campuses or in neighborhoods.
Bullet Facing peer pressure to join a gang.
Bullet Being mistaken as a gang member during school or in neighborhood skirmishes between rival gangs.
Bullet Feeling threatened by school/neighborhood graffiti displaying gang territorial claims.
Bullet Perceiving an increased presence at school of firearms and other weapons related to gang activity.
Bullet Experiencing alarm due to escalating interracial/ethnic tensions between gangs at school and in the community.

Public opinion supports the belief that gangs on school campuses are a major problem in communities across America. For example, in a survey of 700 communities nationwide, 40 percent of the suburban communities and nonmetropolitan towns and cities responding said gangs were a factor in the violence in their schools.15

In addition, the Gallup Organization, in conjunction with the Phi Delta Kappan, annually polls the public regarding its perception toward public schools. In the 1997 survey of persons 18 years and older, respondents reported that the four biggest problems for the public schools in their communities were lack of discipline; lack of financial support; use of drugs; and fighting, violence, and gangs.16 The 1996 Twenty-Seventh Annual Survey of High Achievers sampled behavior trends, opinions, and attitudes of 16- to 18-year-old high school students who had A or B averages. Of the teenagers surveyed, 19 percent knew of the presence of gangs in their schools.17

Many teenagers are vulnerable to the lure of gangs. Membership in a gang is seen to confer a kind of identity that suggests "power, fearlessness, and domination," according to Albert Cohen in the foreword of Gangs in America.18 Youth who perceive particular deficiencies in their lives often seek to compensate by joining gangs. Offers of a loyal support group of peers, who both understand and value each member in a way that parents and other relatives cannot, attract adolescents in the throes of self-doubt, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness. Beginning with gang initiation, however, intimidation and a new kind of fear that feeds on violent exploitation of others lead youth away from the mainstream and into byways and back alleys where weapons, drugs, delinquency, and crime replace schooling and responsible citizenship.

Increasingly, gang activity occurs when ethnic groups within a community develop "turf" rivalries, both in the community and on school campuses. Gang leaders usually command obedience from a loyal core of subordinates and from rank-and-file gang members. The key person in a gang often maintains authority through personal physical force and that of subordinates or by sheer force of personality. Some school administrators have found ways to defuse campus intercultural and gang conflicts by co-opting gang leaders and enlisting their considerable leadership talents in carrying out peaceful, prosocial school programs.19

Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) is a program designed to reduce youth violence and gang membership through a curriculum taught by law enforcement officers to elementary and middle school students. G.R.E.A.T. students are given the opportunity to discover for themselves the ramifications of gang violence through structured exercises and interactive approaches to learning. Included in the curriculum are many optional and extended activities that reinforce classroom instruction. The law enforcement representatives and teachers work together to teach students to become responsible members of their communities, set goals for themselves, resist peer pressure, and resolve conflicts and problems.

Law enforcement officers become certified G.R.E.A.T. officers by attending either a 1- or 2-week training program, depending on their qualifications. The training is provided free of charge at locations around the country. G.R.E.A.T. has trained more than 2,700 officers since 1991. These officers deliver G.R.E.A.T. to students in more than 1,300 communities and on U.S. military bases around the world.

In 1995, under a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the University of Nebraska completed a cross-sectional survey of 5,935 eighth graders, 45 percent of whom had participated in the G.R.E.A.T. program; the rest were used as a comparison group. Preliminary results suggest that G.R.E.A.T. had a significant impact on changing the behavior of students. G.R.E.A.T. students exhibited more prosocial behaviors and attitudes than nonparticipants. They were more attached to their parents and to school. More of their friends were involved in nondelinquent activities, and G.R.E.A.T. students were more committed to these friends. Participants in the program reported that they were less involved in delinquent activity and fighting, were less likely to engage in impulsive or risk-taking behavior, were less likely to perceive blocks to their academic success, and expressed stronger antigang attitudes. However, these results reveal the program's effects after only 1 year. To measure long-term effects, the evaluation team implemented a quasi-experimental research design in which students were assigned to G.R.E.A.T. or non-G.R.E.A.T. classrooms. As part of this longitudinal study, students completed pre- and post-tests during fall 1995 and annual followup surveys in 1996 and 1997. Additional surveys are scheduled for 1998 and 1999.

For more information, contact Tom Schneider, Special Agent in Charge, G.R.E.A.T. Program Branch, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, P.O. Box 50418, Washington, DC 20091-0418, 800-726-7070, great@atfhq.atf.treas.gov, www.ojp.usdoj.gov/BJA/grant/great.html; or State and Local Programs Division, Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, National Center for State, Local, and International Law Enforcement Training, Building 67, Glynco, GA 31524, 912-267-2452.

In any case, if educators are to deal effectively with gang members on campus, they must remain vigilant yet innovative in exploring ways to advance school purposes and policies. The following list represents strategies that schools currently use to that end:

Bullet Establishing ongoing professional development and inservice training programs for all school employees, including training techniques in classroom management and in dealing with cultural diversity, disruptive students and parents, and campus intruders.
Bullet Conducting leadership training classes to assist students in developing insight and skills that enable them to work harmoniously with diverse individuals and groups.
Bullet Offering classes incorporating curriculums on life skills and resistance to peer pressure, values clarification, and cultural sensitivity.
Bullet Implementing dress codes designed to eliminate gang colors and clothing, publicizing the codes at school, and distributing them to all students and parents.
Bullet Adopting school uniforms -- particularly for elementary and middle school students -- sometimes optional and sometimes mandated. Financial assistance should be available to parents who cannot afford uniforms.
Bullet Reducing the length of time between classes to discourage loitering.
Bullet Establishing partnership academies, schools-within-schools, alternative schools, beacon schools, in-school suspension programs, and school-to-work programs in collaboration with colleges and businesses in order to relocate and continue educating students with histories of classroom disruption, lack of motivation, and gang membership.
Bullet Implementing victim/offender programs requiring juvenile offenders to make restitution to victims for damage or loss incurred or to perform community service.
Bullet Creating a climate of ownership and school pride by including students, parents, teachers, and community leaders in the safe-school planning process.
Bullet Staging regular campuswide graffiti and vandalism cleanup campaigns and cleanup rallies in response to specific incidents of defacement and destruction.
Bullet Organizing crisis intervention teams to counsel students coping with troubling violence in and near school.
Bullet Offering students, especially juvenile gang members, special outreach and afterschool programs as an alternative to gang membership.

Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach, a national program first implemented in 1991 by the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (B&GCA), connects local clubs with courts, police departments, schools, social service agencies, and other organizations in the community. Local Boys & Girls Clubs involved in this program identify and recruit at-risk and high-risk youth ages 6 to 18 years old into clubs in a nonstigmatizing way. The clubs also use direct outreach methods to approach youth in the community.

The program focuses on enhancing a youth's communication, problem-solving, and decisionmaking skills. Noting progress monthly, club professional staff help youth focus on specific developmental goals. These goals include staying in school and out of the court system, improving scholastically, bonding with positive adults, and more frequently participating in club events and activities.

In fiscal year (FY) 1997, B&GCA provided training and technical assistance to 30 existing gang prevention and 3 intervention sites and expanded the gang prevention and intervention program to 23 additional clubs. In FY 1998, B&GCA will provide training and technical assistance to 22 new gang prevention sites, 3 new intervention sites, and selected OJJDP demonstration sites. More than 140 clubs have implemented Targeted Outreach since its inception. A previous process evaluation of the program found that once enrolled, 90 percent of the youth came to the club once a week or more, and 26 percent began to come in daily. Many youth who participated in club and civic activities received recognition for the amount and/or quality of their participation, and 48 percent improved their academic performance. A process and outcome evaluation has been funded by OJJDP and is currently being designed by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV).

For more information, contact Frank Sanchez, Jr., Director of Delinquency Prevention, Boys & Girls Clubs of America, 1230 West Peachtree Street NW., Atlanta, GA 30309, 404-815-5763, 404-815-5789 (fax), fsanchez@bgca.org, www.bgca.org.

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Combating Fear and Restoring Safety in Schools Juvenile Justice Bulletin   ·  April 1998