Gang Prevention 101: A School Approach

Teachers and school administrators who learn about the levels of gang membership and warning signs associated with at-risk youth have an opportunity to intervene in a young child's life before he or she becomes a hardcore gangster.
Published: January 19, 2009

Teachers and school administrators who learn about the levels of gang membership and warning signs associated with at-risk youth have an opportunity to intervene in a young child’s life before he or she becomes a hardcore gangster.

Being raised on the street (in literal and figurative terms) is a reality for many children. Now, more grow up in temporary housing, foster care or in other shelter settings. Others live in households that appear to be complete, but the elements of street life (gang life) are as strong inside as they are outside. For many, being raised on the street teaches lessons of dedication to colors and strands of beads that equate to a sense of family, safety and shelter that often leads to violence, prison or death.

Gang Affiliation Often Begins At Birth
Recently, the New York Daily News ran a cover story titled “Baby Ganstas: How Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings ‘Baptize’ Kids.” The article described in detail the ways that violent gang life is passed down from parent to child.  It spoke about religious leaders who are involved in “baptisms” of baby kings and queens: princes and princesses.

Other street gangs announce the increase of their set’s population long before the birth of a child to a parent gang member. Blood Drops or Cripletts are common names for the child gangsta’ who earns lifetime membership by simply being born. No jump in, beat in, sex in or random act of violence for this innocent newborn is required.

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Many programs exist to reduce the number of street gangs functioning in neighborhoods across the country. Some agencies have been successful in helping gang members “drop their colors” and walk away from the gang life. Other agencies are designed to share information and provide education. What these agencies all have in common is a mission based on a similar philosophy.

First is acknowledging that no one will be successful in combating the street gang issue without interagency collaboration. This must include individuals within law enforcement and non-law enforcement organizations. If the only approach employed with gang members is one that threatens incarceration, failure is guaranteed as spending time in a formal lock-up facility is a prerequisite for hardcore gang member status.

The second shared philosophy among successful agencies is the belief that intervention and prevention must start early in a child’s life. The most appropriate setting to identify at-risk youth who spend most waking hours in a safe and neutral environment is in school. A most valuable resource in this approach is the classroom teacher.

Educator Intervention Can Be Challenging
Educators in major urban centers and small rural communities alike would agree that the signs of at-risk behavior are present in children at younger ages. Considering the fact that most children don’t enter school until the age of four, the first time a “baby gangster” interacts with an adult who promotes an anti-gang lifestyle may be in pre-kindergarten.

By the age of five, children have developed relationships of trust and dependency with their families – not with educators. Therefore, it is easy to understand the resistance educators face when they attempt to convince youngsters to put away their colors.

At recent conferences held by the New York Gang Investigators Association (NYGIA), some individuals have shared stories of being defied or threatened by children in primary grades. Some have been case workers, counselors in social service agencies, and most have been educators. More stressful is trying to convince their parents that there is a different and better way of life they can achieve for themselves and their children. The resistance becomes stronger when school officials offer options to family members that may have been unsuccessful in the parent’s past.

Convincing the parent of a child, adolescent or teenage gang member that education is the key to success can not be the only resource used by an educator. This is particularly true if the parent was unsuccessful in school as a child. If the parent currently shares the same thoughts towards education and the benefits it offers children and the child is still demonstrating at-risk behavior for gang membership, alternatives must be sought. However, the key to success in seeking alternative approaches needs to be based on a concrete understanding of gang behaviors.

Labeling Individuals as Members is Tricky
One of the most dangerous habits educators have developed is the inappropriate use of labels to describe individuals. We know that labels serve a purpose. Imagine going food shopping in the canned good aisle and finding all of the labels removed from the cans. Similarly, imagine if all of the cans did have labels but each one read “canned good.” How would you know what to avoid if you had a food allergy?

We should not be afraid of placing a label on a child so long as we use the correct one.  Generically labeling a child a “wanna-be gansta” is the first mistake made by adults who either want to downplay the seriousness of the gang issue that faces them, or by adults who truly don’t understand the levels of gang membership that exist.

Understanding the levels of membership, identifiers and at risk behaviors serves as the first and most important step in creating prevention programs. It also helps when providing intervention services and ensuring that students will be successful in avoiding the temptation to join or remain in a gang. Success in school could be another benefit of this approach.While most educators won’t have students in their classes who are hardcore members on the street, they may have students who are perceived to be hardcore members by other students in the school. Most elementary grade educators will interact with students who are functioning at the level of emulation or apprentice (See “Levels of Gang Involvement” diagram), with the secondary grades finding students who have made the transition to regular members within their gangs. (See “Warning Signs for At-Risk Youth”)

When Identifying a Gang Member, 3 is the Magic Number
Making the educated decision to label a child a gang member is a difficult one. Even after understanding the levels of membership and the warning signs; even after studying the gang color associations that exist among the major or minor gangs that exist in your community, educators must be cautious when placing the title of “gang member” on a child.

Law enforcement/gang intelligence experts have agreed on 12 identifiers used to recognize, with confidence, that a person is a gang member. Commonly, only two identifiers need to be present for a person to be labeled a member of a specific gang or set. However, it is wise for educators and other non-law enforcement professionals to follow the “Rule of Three.”  The exception to this rule would be specific information revealed by law enforcement professionals.

The list of 12 identifiers agreed upon by gang experts universally include:

  • Self admission
  • Gang tattoos
  • Style of dress known to show gang affiliation
  • Possession of gang graffiti or arrested for making gang graffiti
  • Use of gang hand signs
  • Use of gang symbols
  • Prior arrest with other known gang members
  • Identified by family members as having gang affiliations
  • Identified by another law enforcement agency as being a gang member
  • Observed attending gang meetings or gang functions
  • Identified by rival gang sets as being affiliated with a gang
  • Identified by proven, reliable informants

Many of these identifiers may not be openly presented to non-law enforcement professionals. For example, gang tattoos have become harder to identify on students because the tattoos are being placed on more private parts of the body. This allows
for the tattoos to be hidden from their parents. In addition, school or agency officials may not be aware of arrests of students if their crimes were committed off campus.

After Identifying Possible Gang Members, Take Action
What are the next steps in this process? A simple list would include sharing your knowledge with the student’s family, enlisting the counseling resources available to you in your school and community, working to engage the student in meaningful after school activities, and close monitoring of the student. However, these measures must come with additional suggestions that have worked for others in similar situations.

  • Don’t live in denial: A dangerous mistake that many school officials make is denying that a gang problem exists in their schools. Often, educators believe the problem exists in the community but not on campus. In these cases, it is hopeful that the school officials have created programs and settings in which students respect the safe and neutral ground for everyone to learn and interact in meaningful ways. Once the school identifies the issues that exist, seeking help in addressing the problem is easier.
  • Educate yourself: With all of the resources available at the touch of a few buttons on a computer keyboard, it has become almost inexcusable for anyone concerned with the existence of gangs in their community to not conduct simple research on gangs and gang activity. There are numerous books that have been written on this topic, and Web sites have been created by experienced individuals and reputable agencies offering suggestions and other available resources to assist you.
  • Understand graffiti: Study your surroundings. If it exists in the community, it exists on campus. Some, although not all, graffiti found on the walls of local stores is created by school-age children. More students understand graffiti than we may believe. By talking to students, closely observing student work and sharing concerns with trained professionals, educators may be able to help their students avoid serious problems.
  • Create strong relationships with your local law enforcement and district attorney’s office to provide workshops for staff members, students and parents: Also include these agencies in monthly meetings to discuss the success of established programs and to share intelligence for the purpose of tailoring the services offered to the students involved in your programs.
  • Be aware of the many forms of media exposed to youth culture: Movies, television, music, magazines, cell phones and the Internet (social networking sites) are flooded with languages and experiences that older generations simply do not understand. While it may be easier to ignore these influences, understanding these elements will help you find ways to overcome them.
  • Become involved in various agencies that can provide further information and assistance to your school: You can find a list of reputable gang investigators associations at (National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations). While some associations may be exclusive to law enforcement professionals, some do allow membership by non-law enforcement professionals. Additional links to valuable resources can also be found on this Web site. No matter the association, all believe in a strong relationship between law enforcement and non-law enforcement to collectively find ways to address gang activity in our schools and communities.In the Daily News article referred to earlier in this feature, Andrew Grascia, president of the New York Gang Investigators Association said, “No child is born evil.

    They’re taught evil things. You’re taking a young, very fragile child who is being taught crime by the people who are supposed to secure and take care of him.”

    Now, more than ever, it is time that the other adults in a child’s life learn how to identify these obstacles and help children and their families work towards making better decisions.

    Dr. Jay Findling is the New York City Regional Director for the New York Gang Investigators Association. He can be reached at or Safety Magazine hospitals schools and universities

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