Gang Violence in Schools

Violence in schools, particularly gang violence, has increased in the past XX years (citation). Gang membership was once considered an issue only facing urban inner-city schools, however, gangs are now spread throughout suburban neighborhoods (Sharkey, 2011). Research has found that gang membership among students can significantly impact educational, social and emotional attainment (citation). In schools, minority children are the primary perpetrators of violence (Soriano & Soriano, 1994), including gang violence; however, this does not indicate that a student’s ethnic and cultural identity means they will participate in violent activities. Social, economic and cultural contexts come together that afford some individuals easy access to privilege and not for others (Soriano & Soriano, 1994). It is critical to consider the combination of factors that may lead children to engage in school violence (Eisenbraun, 2007). This paper will focus on African American and Hispanic students involvement in gangs as understanding the unique factors that lead these youth to join gangs can help in prevention and intervention efforts. The following paper will discuss gang membership and violence in schools including risk factors for membership, long-term implications, and prevention among African American and Hispanic students.

Violence in Schools

Violence in schools is an issue nationwide that can impact students’ social, emotional, and educational attainment. Students in middle school are among the highest at risk when compared to high school students and elementary students (Lessne & Yanez, 2018). Violence is defined as bullying, fighting (e.g., punching, slapping, kicking), weapon use, cyberbullying, and gang violence (cdc). School violence can occur in a variety of contexts in school including, but not limited to on school property, on the way to or from school, during a school-sponsored event, or on the way to or from a school-sponsored event (CDC). Violence in schools has many implications for the students including the feeling of safety. One survey found that the majority (95.7%) of students attending city schools reported feeling safe in their school, which was significantly lower than the percentage of students attending suburban schools (97.9%; Nolle, Guerino, Dinkes, & Chandler, 2007).

There is a close association between violence and gang membership (e.g., Curry, Maxson, & Howell, 2001; Esbensen & Huizinga, 1993; Miller, 2001; Miller & Brunson, 2000; Miller & Decker, 2001; Peterson, Taylor, & Esbensen, 2004; Rosenfeld, Bray, & Egley, 1999; Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003). One of the defining features of gangs is violence; therefore, “gang presence is a large indicator of school violence and general disorder” (Eisenbraun, 2007 & Mayer & Leone, 1999).

Overview of gangs

There is no universal definition of “gang” as the definition varies by state. However, there are commonalities between the definitions. One sample definition from California defines gang membership as:

Any ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons, whether formal or informal, having as its primary activities the commission of one or more… criminal acts… having a common name or common identifying sign or symbol, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of criminal gang activity (California Penal Code, 2010).

Gangs are an organized group of individuals generally 12-24 years of age. Outside individuals view the members as a gang and they typically share an identity in the form of a name and often other symbols. To date, there is no standardized way to classify gangs, although attempts have been made to classify these groups either by name or criminal activity. However, these categories are limiting as gangs with nationally known names may have little to no connection to the larger organization. Smaller gangs may adopt nationally known gang names as a way to appear more powerful in their local area. Gangs also may have more than one symbol and/or sign as a means to attract more individuals to their gang. Categorizing gangs may prohibit the ability to fully understand and identify the similarities and differences between gangs, which can ultimately hinder prevention and intervention efforts (FAQ).

A lot of gang violence is internal, where members fight each other in order to obtain more power. Current members also require new members to commit violence acts as initiation into the group. Some examples include wildly shooting while driving, which can result in injury or death of bystanders. Physical beatings are not uncommon with initiation, unwavering loyalty is required, and corporal punishment is given quickly and without question by an authoritarian leader (Rees, 1996). Other violent acts includes “turf war,” which is attacking members from other gangs who crossover specified boundaries (TEEN TURNING POINTS). Additional disadvantages cited by gang members include causing familial alienation, at times doing things that don’t feel right, and not being able to be friends with nongang members (Omizo, Omizo, & Honda, 1997).

Youth involvement in gangs

Recent statistics provided by law enforcement report that among all gang members, 46% are Hispanic/Latino, 35% are Black, more than 11% are White, and 7% are other race/ethnicity gang members (National Gang Center). Gang membership tends to emerge in midadolescence; children typically join between the ages of 12 and 15 years old nationwide (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Seven percent of Whites, and 12% of Black and Hispanic children report current or past gang membership by the age of 17 years (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). The prevalence of youth under 18 in gangs is higher in smaller cities and rural communities where gang problems are less established, compared to larger cities (youth.gov). Gang members are most likely to be boys and The National Gang Center Bulletin reported that, in a 2001 nationwide survey of more than 1,300 schools, 7.6 percent of males said they were members of a gang, compared to only 3.8 percent of female students (NEED CITE). A common misconception regarding gang membership is that once an individual joins a gang, they are required to be in the gang for life. However, based on multiple studies across multiple cities, across multiple papers, it is found that most youth who join a gang do not remain in the gang for an extended period of time (nationalgangcenter). The average time an adolescent is involved in a gang is approximately one to two years (nationalgangcenter).

Negative impact of youth gang membership

Many youth join a gang as a means of protection (FAQ), yet research has found that the risk of victimization actually increases while in a gang. Therefore, youth seek gang membership as a safe option, without realizing joining actually increases their chances of being victimized. Thus, youth choose to join a gang in order to avoid the random street violence because they perceive the gang to be more manageable and preferable (FAQ).

Through the use of longitudinal studies, researchers have been able to identify the long-term impact of gang membership among African American and Hispanic youth. Due to the increased involvement in criminal activity, youth gang members are at an increased risk of being arrested, having a criminal record, and incarceration, which can hinder the probability of successful transition into adulthood (CITATION). In addition, research has shown that individuals who were involved in a gang for longer periods of time and/or were deeply embedded in the gang, are more negatively impacted after leaving the gang (FAQ). One study found that adolescent gang members has a significant impact on adult functioning across 3 domains (illegal behavior, educational and occupational attainment, and health and mental health) after controlling for after controlling for individual, family, peer, school, and neighborhood characteristics (Gilman, Hill, & Hawkins, 2014). Specifically, when compared to non-gang members, gang members had poorer outcomes including higher rates of self-reported crime, receipt of illegal income, incarceration, drug abuse or dependence, poor general health, and welfare receipt and lower rates of high school graduation. Other negative outcomes are dropping out of school, early parenthood, and lack of or unstable employment.

Risk factors for gang membership

Understanding the risk factors that lead African American and Hispanic youth to be vulnerable to gang membership is complicated as children do not develop in a vacuum and they are constantly impacted by their environment. The influential risk factors present may be viewed as stepping stones that increase the likelihood of joining a gang in mid-adolescence (Howell & Egley, 2005). For gang membership, these factors have a cumulative effect on risk as factors in multiple domains increase the probability of youth violence and gang involvement (Eisenbraun, 2007). One study (Eisenbraun, 2007) found a “tipping point” at seven risk factors, meaning the odds of engaging in either violence or gang membership are twice as great for youth with seven compared to six risk factors. Specific risk factors for African American and Hispanic youth for gang involvement will be discussed below.

Both African American and Hispanic youth are much more likely than whites to live in disadvantaged communities with characteristics that exacerbate risk for gang involvement (Hagedorn, 1988). For instance, minority youth are more likely to live in concentrated poverty, social and geographic isolation, resource-deprived schools, fewer meaningful employment opportunities, deteriorating public education system, rundown and decaying housing, relatively high rates of crime and violence, a criminal justice system that removes a disproportionate share of residents particularly young men from the area (CITATION). African American and Hispanic youth living in disadvantaged neighborhoods are at increased risk of engaging in violence, which can ultimately spillover into the school. Friends made on the streets and activities learned often carry over into the school setting (Vigil, 1990).

Evidence suggests that some risk factors for gang involvement may be different for specific groups, specifically African American and Hispanic. For instance, African-American gang members are impacted by social factors such as being relate to a gang member, knowing students in their classes in a gang, and friends who use drugs when compared to Hispanic gang members (citation). In contrast, risk factors for Hispanic gang members are more related to educational struggles and lower school self-esteem (citation). Both African American and Hispanic students, are more likely to join gangs when they are exposed to the streets, are less academically driven, have negative interactions with law enforcement (12-citation).

While there is significant literature on the risk factors for youth gang membership, there is scant literature regarding protective factors. Some studies have found the role of family relationships and the presence of caring and support as a factor associated with emotional health and in protection against involvement in high-risk activities (Cummins, Ireland, Resnick, & Blum, 1999; Farrell & White, 1998; Nelson, Patience, & MacDonald, 1999; Wills & Cleary, 1996). One study by Li, Pack, Harris, Cottrell, & Burns (2002) on gang involvement among African American adolescents found family factors to play the greatest role in resiliency. Specifically, they found that higher levels of family involvement, open family communication, and parental monitoring were significantly associated with non–gang membership. Parental support may act as a buffer and reduce the stress effects of other risk various risk factors discussed above.

Motivating factors for gang membership

Youth are often pushed and pulled in a varied of ways to join gangs. The motivating factors that may lead youth to gang membership are often complicated and interrelated. Gang membership can function as an adaptive social mechanism, and provide benefits that are unable to be fulfilled by other means. Gangs can fulfill basic needs such as shelter and food; gang membership can also provide other higher-order needs such as safety, security, and protection. The following sections will explore the motivating factors that may lead African American and Hispanic youth to join a gang.

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