School’s Role in Preventing Youth Gang Membership

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Updated: Sep 07, 2023
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Gang membership can provide a sense of safety in the form of security and protection. Youth who join gangs may benefit from the structure, protection, and support the gang provides, especially when this safety is not provided within their family. Gang life provides a clear family structure and clear expectations of how to achieve the success that many members may gravitate towards. One study sought to understand the relationship between maltreatment and gang involvement and found that youth may join gangs for peer support and escape from familial abuse (Thompson and Braaten-Antrim 1998). They found that children who were physically maltreated, had 2.35 times increased odds of gang membership, being sexually abused by 1.77 times, and being both physically and sexually abused by almost 4 times. This finding is particularly important for African American and Hispanic youth as when compared with Whites, they are at an increased risk of reports for physical abuse (Dakil, Cox, Lin, & Flores, 2011). Gangs may provide youth with a sense of self-esteem and respect, that is, gangs provide expectations and support in order for their group to achieve success. Gangs give youth the opportunity to build their self-esteem through wealth, power, success, and their membership in a gang. Gangs target those with low self-esteem and provide them with confidence through the “reputation of the gang, positive association with one another in the gang, gang-related accomplishments (Carlie, 2002).” Interviews with gang-involved inmates revealed how many males join to confirm their masculinity (Stretesky, & Pogrebin, 2007) while many women join to confirm their femininity or “bad girl” reputation (Laidler, & Hunt, 2001), which they crave when they are unable to receive these feelings from other prosocial activities.

Many youths seek gang membership as a catalyst for their success as they often experience failure in other aspects of their life such as academics. Youth rely on gangs for a sense of belonging and togetherness that other areas of mainstream society (school, family, friends) cannot provide and gravitate towards cohesiveness and common identity that they get from being in a gang. Gangs provide many members with the financial stability and lifestyle they desire. While there is a lot of risk with gang membership, the opportunities for economic and social success outweigh the youth’s current situation. Financially, selling drugs and stealing can be extremely lucrative for fast money and many people are tempted for instant cash (Anderson & Dyson, 1996). If no other economic pathways exist, gangs are seen as a legitimate option to power and money. Gang members may also be seen as positive role models for younger members as they hold a higher status, wear better clothes, and act in a way that seems like they have a better lifestyle (Stretesky & Pogrebin, 2007). This provides members with a perceived sense of fulfillment, glamour, and popularity that other pathways in life have not provided. Preventing gang membership Schools are in an extremely important position to meet the needs of at-risk youth as students spend the most time with school-age children outside of the family.

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Schools can play a crucial role in gang prevention by providing academic interventions, mentorship programs, social services, and collaboration with outside recreational programs and antigang and psychosocial curriculum. Research suggests that prevention programs specific to a race and/or ethnic group may not be crucial, but rather, general prevention programming, that includes racially and ethnically sensitive components, may be sufficient (Esbensen, Peterson, Taylor, & Freng, 2010). This finding has implications for interventions in the school settings. Currently, many schools intervene with youth who are at-risk or who are involved with gang activities. It is necessary for schools to look not only at the individual but the environment and understand the context for why a student may or may not join a gang. Trust is extremely important when forming relationships between at-risk students, teachers, and administrators in the school. Due to the increased surveillance and security presence of at-risk students, school climate is diminished and those needed relationships are never able to form. If schools can increase the trust between students and adults, then the youth will not turn away from role models in the schools and keep students from relying on gangs (Brotherton, 1996).

One program that installs this trust between students and teachers at schools is Respect Encourages Student Participation in Empowering Communication Techniques (RESPECT), a program that mediates gang tension in schools by encouraging students to work out conflicts through the help of student trained mediators (Tabish & Orell, 1996), The program is integrated with the school culture to decrease gang activity in the school environment and promote systems to combat the negative influences from outside the school. Since students often join gangs in search of a strong and healthy family system, schools can mimic the strong and healthy family through caring and role modeling to steer students away from gang membership. Specifically, schools should build relationships with each individual student and provide positive role models; explain to staff, students, and parents that schools are neutral grounds and that gang, drug, and weapon activities will receive immediate and priority response; apply action in a timely, firm, fair, and consistent manner; implement student anti-gang education and prevention programs; and establish a protocol for student conflict mediation and enhance communication amongst stakeholders (Kodluboy, 2004). Teachers and staff in the school have a unique opportunity to create an environment that is built of love and respect. Having high expectations for their students, engaging with students, and developing strong relationships with students can provide the support that can prevent youth from joining a gang.

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One study found that school-level characteristics such as caring relationships and high expectations were related to student engagement above and beyond individual resiliency, regardless of the level of family strengths (Sharkey, You, & Schnoebelen, 2008). Other students have found that students who have teachers that really care and take the time to treat their students fairly, make the biggest difference in interrupting delinquent trajectories (Sander et al., 2010). In another study, the Seattle Social Development Project, bonding to school was critical to avoid negative outcomes such as delinquency and drop out (Catalano, Haggerty, Oesterle, Fleming, & Hawkins, 2004). Together, these studies provide strong support for the protective influence of caring relationships at school. Other activities can also promote a sense of belonging within the school

After-school programs can also foster these skills and give students an opportunity to engage in a positive, community organization. One study found that at-risk boys who participated in both an after-school and educational intervention, which required job skills workshops and intragroup cooperation, no youth in the intervention joined a gang whereas four youth in the control group joined a gang (Thompson & Jason, 1988). These results highlight the importance of school-based interventions to prevent gang membership. For some students, gangs may appear glamourous. In secondary schools, teachers use more lecture-style teaching, which can be boring to most students, especially compared to the style of teaching among many elementary schools. Without engaging lessons, students may be attracted to the excitement and glamour of many gangs. Secondary schools can combat this by enhancing student mastery and differentiating the curriculum to the needs of each student. Schools can also choose to engage in a gang prevention program. The largest gang prevention program in the country is the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT), which is a nine-week prevention program for seventh graders with a focus on reducing gang activity and educating youth about the negative impact of gang involvement (Esbensen & Osgood, 1999). The program teaches students to resist peer pressure, issues of cultural diversity, conflict resolution, the effect of drugs on the neighborhood, and responsibility. Results show that students who participate in the GREAT program reported significantly more prosocial behaviors and behaviors and attitudes than nonparticipating students (Esbensen & Osgood, 1999).

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School's Role in Preventing Youth Gang Membership. (2020, Jan 19). Retrieved from