ERIC Identifier: ED372175
Publication Date: 1994-07-00
Author: Burnett, Gary - Walz, Garry
Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.| ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Gangs in the Schools. ERIC Digest 99.
Gang culture among young people, in itself, is nothing new. Indeed, youth
gangs have been a major part of the urban cultural landscape since at least the
1830s, when Charles Dickens described Fagin's pack of young boys roaming the
streets of London in "Oliver Twist."
In the late twentieth century United States, however, gangs have taken on a
different character and have moved into areas unimagined by Dickens. Most
significantly, they are spreading from inner cities to "edge cities"--cities at
the outskirts of large urban centers--and to suburbs; indeed, while gang
activity has been stabilizing in urban areas, it has increased significantly
elsewhere (Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993). At the same time, gangs have become a
growing problem in public schools, which historically have been considered
CHARACTERISTICS OF GANGS
Researchers agree that most gangs
share certain characteristics. Although there are exceptions, gangs tend to
develop along racial and ethnic lines, and are typically 90 percent male
(Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993). Gang members often display their membership through
distinctive styles of dress--their "colors"--and through specific activities and
patterns of behavior. In addition, gangs almost universally show strong loyalty
to their neighborhood, often marking out their territory with graffiti (Gaustad,
1991). All of these representations can be visible in the schools.
As Gaustad (1991) points out, however, the specifics of gang style and
activity can vary tremendously from gang to gang, and can even change rapidly
within individual gangs. For instance, African American gangs tend to confine
their activities to their own communities, although the Bloods and the Crips,
two gangs originating in Los Angeles, now have members nationwide. In contrast,
Asian gangs often travel hundreds of miles from home in order to conduct their
activities (Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993). In addition, African American and
Hispanic gangs are much more likely to display their colors than are Asian
gangs. Anglo gangs are often made up of white supremacists. Gangs can also vary
tremendously in numbers and age ranges of members.
THE IMPACT OF GANGS ON SCHOOLS
Despite their high profile
in the media, relatively few young people join gangs; even in highly impacted
areas, the degree of participation has rarely exceeded 10 percent. In addition,
it has been reported that less than 2 percent of all juvenile crime is
gang-related (Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993).
Such low numbers, however, may camouflage the impact that the presence of
gangs has on a school. For one thing, they play a significant role in the
widespread increase of violence in the schools; indeed, school violence has
steadily increased since a 1978 National Institute of Education study, Violent
Schools-Safe Schools, found that school-aged children were at a higher risk of
suffering from violence in school than anywhere else (cited in Gaustad, 1991).
Because gangs are, by definition, organized groups, and are often actively
involved in drug and weapons trafficking, their mere presence in school can
increase tensions there. It can also increase the level of violence in schools,
even though gang members themselves may not be directly responsible for all of
it; both gang members and non-gang members are arming themselves with increased
frequency. Students in schools with a gang presence are twice as likely to
report that they fear becoming victims of violence than their peers at schools
without gangs (Trump, 1993). Moreover, a 1992 Bureau of Justice Statistics
survey reports that schools with gangs are significantly more likely to have
drugs available on campus than those without gangs (Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993).
In Gaustad's words, gangs create a "tenacious framework" within which school
violence can take root and grow (1991, p.24).
Far from remaining neutral turf, schools not only suffer from gang-related
violence "spilling over" from the streets, but are themselves rapidly becoming
centers of gang activities, functioning particularly as sites for recruitment
and socializing (Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993; Arthur & Erickson, 1992). An
interview-based study by Boyle (1992) suggests that gang members see school as a
necessary evil at best, and at worst as a form of incarceration. Although many
gang members acknowledge the importance of the educational objectives of school,
school is much more important to them as a place for gathering with fellow gang
members for socializing and other more violent activities. Significantly, Boyle
also found that even those gang members who had been suspended or had dropped
out of school could be found on campus with their associates, effectively using
the school as a gang hangout rather than as an educational institution.
Finally, gangs can spread unexpectedly from school to school as students
transfer from gang-impacted schools to gang-free schools, causing an
unintentional spillover of gang activity in the new school.
WHY GANGS DEVELOP AND WHY STUDENTS JOIN THEM
root in schools for many reasons, but the primary attraction of gangs is their
ability to respond to student needs that are not otherwise being met; they often
provide youth with a sense of family and acceptance otherwise lacking in their
lives. In addition, gangs may form among groups of recent immigrants as a way of
maintaining a strong ethnic identity. Understanding how gangs meet these student
needs prepares schools to better respond to them.
Four factors are primary in the formation of juvenile gangs (William Gladden
youth experience a sense of alienation and powerlessness because of a lack of
traditional support structures, such as family and school. This can lead to
feelings of frustration and anger, and a desire to obtain support outside of
gang membership gives youth a sense of belonging and becomes a major source of
identity for its members. In turn,gang membership affords youth a sense of power
and control, and gang activities become an outlet for their anger.
control of turf is essential to the well-being of the gang, which often will use
force to control both its territory and members.
recruitment of new members and expansion of territory are essential if a gang is
to remain strong and powerful. Both "willing" and "unwilling" members are drawn
into gangs to feed the need for more resources and gang members.
Taken together these four factors interact to produce gangs that become more
powerful and ruthless as they work to maintain and expand their sway over
territory and youth.
GANGS AND SCHOOL RESPONSE
Still, despite the significant
influence that gangs have upon violence and crime in schools, it would be a
great disservice to portray them as so potent that schools are powerless to
respond. Indeed, the perception of gangs as omnipotent frequently leads schools
either to react harshly with overly punitive and restrictive actions or to be so
intimidated that they refrain from taking any action at all.
What is needed instead is a strategy that mobilizes school and community
resources to offer viable alternatives to youth gang membership. To be
successful, however, a school's strategy must be built upon the above-described
sociopsychological reasons for why gangs develop and attract youths; in
particular, schools must find ways to address students' feelings of
powerlessness and low self-esteem. A strategy that embodies an understanding of
"gang psychology" increases the probability that gangs will be less able to
attract new members and retain old members.
EFFECTIVE INTERACTIONS FOR COMBATING SCHOOL GANGS
following eight interventions have each been shown to be effective on their own,
but can also be the basis of a comprehensive schoolwide strategy:
students vulnerable to gang recruitment for special assistance, particularly
through the use of peer counselors and support groups. Mentoring, conflict
resolution programs, and tutoring can be particularly effective.
moral and ethical education, values clarification, and conflict resolution as
important components of the school curriculum.
an inviting school climate where every student feels valued.
all school staff, including support staff, about how gangs develop and how to
respond to them.
special programs for parents on gangs and how to deal with them as a parent.
Present information in a culturally sensitive way, and in a variety of
languages, to reflect the diversity of the community.
youths who are not enrolled in school but "hang out" on or near school property.
This can help school officials assess the existence of gangs in the
neighborhood, and anticipate and prevent their formation in the school.
educational programs for students about gangs, their destructiveness, and how to
avoid being drawn into them, preferably in small groups where they can express
their feelings comfortably.
regular opportunities for students individually and/or in small groups to
discuss their experiences in school and make future plans that offer hope and
Though the above steps offer no magical solution for eliminating gangs, they
offer valuable interventions that may make gangs appear less attractive and
prepare individual students to more effectively resist gang pressure to join
Arthur, R., & Erickson, E. (1992). Gangs and
schools. Holmes Beach, FL: Learning Publications. (ED 358 204)
Bodinger-deUriarte, C. (1993). Membership in violent gangs fed by suspicion,
deterred through respect. Los Alamitos, CA: Southwest Regional Educational
Laboratory. (ED 358 399)
Boyle, K. (1992). School's a rough place: Youth gangs, drug users, and family
life in Los Angeles. Washington, DC: Department of Education, Office of
Educational Research and Improvement. (ED 360 435)
Gaustad, J. (1991). Schools respond to gangs and violence. Eugene, OR: Oregon
School Study Council. (ED 337 909)
Trump, K. S. (1993). Youth gangs and schools: The need for intervention and
prevention strategies. Cleveland: Urban Child Research Center.
William Gladden Foundation. (1992). Juvenile gangs. York, PA: Author. (ED 361