ERIC Identifier: ED321419
Publication Date: 1990-00-00
Author: Gaustad, Joan
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management Eugene
Gangs. ERIC Digest Series Number EA 52.
Although youth gangs have existed in the cities of the United States
almost as long as the nation itself, trends during the last two decades
have alarmed school and community officials. Gangs, now more violent than
ever, are spreading to new locations. Warns Clarence Terhune, director
of the California Youth Authority, "the problem can erupt anywhere at almost
any time" (Kay McKinney 1988).
WHAT IS A GANG?
Gangs vary tremendously in composition and activities. Irving Spergel
(1989) suggests the following working definition: "juvenile and young adults
associating together for serious, especially violent, criminal behavior
with special concerns for 'turf'." Turf can signify the control of a physical
territory, a criminal enterprise, or both.
Defense of turf can lead to extreme violence. As Captain Raymond Gott
of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office says, simply "wearing the wrong color
in a certain neighborhood can get you killed" (McKinney). Turf lines are
normally drawn in the neighborhoods, but gang rivalries also have a devastating
impact on schools. Often, even non-gang members begin bringing weapons
to school for "protection" from robberies and gang violence (Cindy Tursman
Asian, black, Hispanic, white and interracial gangs exist, ranging in
size from a few members to thousands. Ages range from preteen to adult,
but the average age is dropping--from 15 in 1984, to 13 1/2 in 1987 (McKinney).
The vast majority of gang members are male (Spergel).
Most gang members advertise their membership by distinctive dress and
behaviors, including handkerchiefs and shoelaces of specific colors, jewelry,
tattoos, jargon, and hand gestures. They mark their territory and challenge
other gangs with spray-painted graffiti or gang symbols. The National School
Safety Center (NSSC 1988) provides an excel-lent summary of the characteristics
of different types of gangs.
WHY DO GANGS FORM?
According to Larry Rawles, deputy director of Philadelphia's Crisis
Intervention Network, gang membership offers kids status, acceptance, and
self-esteem they haven't found elsewhere (Del Stover 1986). In poorer communities,
a breakdown of family and community structures may leave kids more receptive
to gang recruitment. However, gangs can also form in affluent areas among
kids who feel alienated from friends and families (Stover).
Financial gain is a powerful motive for gang involvement, especially
for impoverished youths with poor education and lack of access to decent
jobs (McKinney). The vast sums of money available through the drug trade
have increased the size of gangs, both by recruitment and by longer retention
of members. Usually only a few adult gang members make large sums of money.
Aware that courts treat juveniles far more leniently than adults, they
shield themselves by using juvenile gang members as everything from lookouts
to gang hitmen (NSSC). Drug trafficking makes traditional turf battles
bloodier by providing the money for sophisticated weaponry, and it creates
new sources of conflict as rival gangs fight over lucrative drug territories
WHERE ARE GANGS A PROBLEM AND HOW DO THEY SPREAD?
Gangs continue to be active in large cities where they have been long
established, and they are spreading to suburbs and smaller cities. Pressure
by police and rivals and the lure of higher drug profits push gangs to
seek new territories (Dan Bryant 1989). Meanwhile, in many midsize communities
factory closings and business failures create unemployment and poverty,
"conditions conducive to gang activity" (Tursman).
In some cities, like Chicago and Philadelphia, gang activity is actually
stabilizing or declining as their gangs move into other cities like Detroit
and Milwaukee (Tursman). Gangs flourish in Los Angeles, the current "gang
capital of the U.S.," in spite of increased community and police efforts,
and have spread like cancer to surrounding communities (Stover). The Drug
Enforcement Agency has confirmed the presence of members of Los Angeles
gangs in forty-nine other cities across the nation. Chris Baca, director
of Albuquerque's Youth Development, Inc., warns other midsize cities to
react quickly; by the time Albuquerque acknowledged it had a problem, gangs
with Los Angeles origins were firmly established (McKinney).
School officials in Eugene, Oregon, aware of the dramatic increase in
gang activity in nearby Portland, recently made a unique attempt to block
its spread to their own community. On October 2, 1989, eighteen-year-old
Robbie Robinson, accompanied by two friends wearing gang colors, enrolled
at South Eugene High School.
Administrators contacted Jefferson High School in Portland, Robinson's
previous high school, and learned he had an extensive record of gang activity
and had been barred from finishing high school there. On Robinson's first
day of attendance, a group of seven additional teens dressed in gang fashion
entered and walked through the halls. One of them announced that he, too,
planned to enroll.
Principal Don Jackson suspended Robinson. A week later, in the first
such action in the nation, the school board sought an injunction in Lane
County Circuit Court to bar the student permanently from the city's schools,
not on the basis of any specific actions, but because "his mere presence
at the school in clothing associated with gang membership constitutes a
danger to the health and safety of students" (Jeff Wright 1989). On November
8, the injunction was granted.
Some citizens expressed concern about the constitutionality of the ruling,
but members of the local chapter of the NAACP and of the Community Coalition
for the Prevention of Gangs applauded the action. Said Jackson, "You don't
un-gang a community. We may not be able to keep it out, but at least we
have to try" (personal interview, May 7, 1990).
HOW CAN SCHOOL OFFICIALS FIGHT GANG ACTIVITY?
Experts agree the schools must be established as neutral ground. Anything
related to gang membership should be banned: weapons, violence, illegal
activity, gang-identified clothing, insignia, and gestures. Staff can expect
to be tested constantly by the subtle and changing forms of gang symbols.
Administrators must communicate clear, consistent standards of discipline
and enforce them. In a study of Ohio gang activity, Dr. Ronald Huff found
that teachers who backed down in confrontations were more likely to be
assaulted than teachers who were fair but firm (Bryant). The NSSC details
a number of specific conflict prevention strategies.
Graffiti should be painted over immediately. Not only does this signal
that school property is not the gang's, it also discourages rival gangs
from responding with more graffiti, or worse, defacing their rival's symbols,
which can lead to retaliation and violence.
Anti-gang policies of the Portland school superintendent included searching
students and lockers if there were indications of drugs or weapons, and
expelling and referring to juvenile court any student found to possess
Some districts split up gangs by transferring disruptive students. This
may reduce friction, but Spergel warns new problems sometimes result; a
gang member may be picked out if he is transferred to a school dominated
by another gang (Stover). Schools may also offer alternative educational
programs for gang members (Richard Arthur 1989).
Districts unused to gang activity may be reluctant to acknowledge its
appearance. Roberto Rivera, director of the Chicago Intervention Network,
urges school boards to encourage administrators to be alert for signs of
gang activity and assure them that reporting problems won't reflect adversely
on them (Stover).
Preventive efforts are also important. Chicago schools offer recreational
alternatives to gang activity by staying open for evening extracurricular
activities (Stover). The City of Paramount, California, has developed an
anti-gang curriculum entitled "Alternatives to Gang Membership" (Tursman).
Experts stress the importance of starting prevention programs in the early
elementary grades in order to circumvent gang influence (Bryant). Spergel
suggests specifically targeting "youth who give clear indication of gang
involvement" as opposed to those identified as generally "at-risk." Some
warning signs include evidence of child abuse, behavior and personality
changes, gang-identified dress, sudden unexplained wealth, and increased
substance abuse (NSSC).
HOW CAN SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITIES JOINTLY FIGHT GANGS?
Information sharing is vital. Milwaukee School Security chief Jerry
Mourning urges schools to keep abreast of gang rivalries: "You need to
know what's happening in the community. What happens over the weekend,
we handle on Monday mornings" (Stover). In Chicago, the school board receives
monthly reports on student assaults from each school to give them an overview
of citywide trends (Stover).
Police expertise can benefit schools. In Chicago, police have trained
6,000 teachers to identify gang behaviors. Milwaukee school administrators
and police meet periodically to exchange information on gang activities.
Police can also train school staff to handle armed or violent youths (Stover).
In many communities, schools have joined law enforcement, judicial,
and civil authorities to create coordinated anti-gang programs, such as
the Philadelphia Crisis Intervention Network and the Chicago Intervention
Network. School boards in Pasadena and Compton, California, have invited
the Los Angeles Community Youth Gang Services "to conduct weekly seminars
for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders on the dangers of becoming involved
with a street gang" (Stover). The NSSC lists a number of successful school
and community programs, some preventive in nature.
Sometimes anti-gang efforts go beyond the community. In 1985, Illinois
passed legislation increasing penalties for distribution or sale of weapons
and drugs within 1,000 feet of school property. New Jersey recently established
similar safe-school zones (Tursman). Even comprehensive efforts may be
unable to eliminate gangs. But school officials can take steps to control
gang activity within their sphere, and they can make valuable contributions
to reducing the problem in their communities.
Arthur, Richard F. "How to Help Gangs Win the Self-Esteem Battle." SCHOOL
ADMINISTRATOR 46,5 (May 1989):18-20. EJ 388 730.
Bryant, Dan. "Communitywide Responses Crucial for Dealing With Youth
Gangs." JUVENILE JUSTICE BULLETIN (September 1989): 1-6. (U.S. Department
McKinney, Kay C. "Juvenile Gangs: Crime and Drug Trafficking." JUVENILE
JUSTICE BULLETIN (September 1988): 1-8. (U.S. Department of Justice).
National School Safety Center. "Gangs in Schools: Breaking Up Is Hard
To Do." Malibu, California: National School Safety Center, Pepperdine University,
1988. 49 pages. ED 312 171.
Spergel, Irving A. Youth Gangs: Problem and Response, A Review of the
Literature. Executive Summary. Draft. Chicago: School of Social Service
Administration, University of Chicago, January 1989. 24 pages.
Stover, Del. "A New Breed of Youth Gang Is on the Prowl and a Bigger
Threat Than Ever." AMERICAN SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL 173,8 (August 1986):19-24,35.
EJ 338 808.
Turner, Brenda. "A Groundswell Response to Recent Crime Wave." SCHOOL
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Tursman, Cindy. "Safeguarding Schools Against Gang Warfare." SCHOOL
ADMINISTRATOR 46,5 (May 1989):8-9,13-15. EJ 388 729.
Wright, Jeff, "Court Ban of Student Requested." THE REGISTER-GUARD,
November 4, 1989, Eugene, Oregon.