Stopping Gangs One Child at a Time

With gang-related crime on the rise again, traditional law enforcement agencies have their hands full trying to combat this disturbing trend. Considering schools are often the recruiting grounds for new members, it makes sense that campuses do their part to discourage gang involvement.

In February, the Los Angeles Police Department unveiled a number of wide-ranging initiatives designed to significantly reduce gang crime in Southern California. Some of those strategies include placement of a Los Angeles gang member on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List;” gang abatement legislation; community awareness bulletins; patrol proliferation; community symposiums on gang awareness; and the launch of a criminal gang homicide investigation group.

Although all of these and other initiatives may be very effective in getting known gang members off the streets, without proper preventive programs aimed at children, a younger generation of gangsters will probably take their places.

“We in law enforcement will never arrest our way out of the gang problem,” says Sgt. Richard Valdemar, noted gang expert who was formerly with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD). “We must get down there into the community, through schools, the Boy Scouts, coaches, athletic events and churches so everyone has a stake in trying to keep kids from choosing gangs.”

Valdemar, along with Sgt. Rick Orneles of the Los Angeles School Police Department, and Tony Ostos, manager for the Gang Resistance Is Paramount (GRIP) program in Paramount, Calif., all agree that gang activity on school campuses can be curbed if the anti-gang message can be delivered early in a student’s academic career.

All three spoke at the TREXPO Campus Safety Conference on March 20 in Long Beach, Calif., and provided a primer on the problem of gang violence on K-12 campuses, as well as possible solutions.

The Problem: Community Issues Come on Campus

Gangs on school grounds stake out their territory by marking it with graffiti, just like they do off campus. According to Ornelas, they may lay claim to the lunch area, a bathroom or in front of the auditorium. “That is often a good thing,” he says. “Sometimes school administrators or school resource officers [SROs] will want to push them out of those areas. But if you know where they are, you can keep an eye on them. With the police there, they will keep it cool.”

Additionally, gang members study the layout of a campus to determine the location of its vulnerabilities. “They know when the campus officer or SRO isn’t behind the gym,” says Ornelas. “They know when the bathrooms aren’t being supervised.” It is important, then, for campus law enforcement to stay abreast of the trends.

In general, gangs develop alliances based on race. “Whatever is happening in the community will spill over onto the campus,” Ornelas adds. “I was assigned to a school in South Central [Los Angeles] that had about 50 percent African-American and 50 percent Hispanic students. The gangs were fighting in the community, which led to major student unrest. One day a week or month, African-American gang members on campus would rush the Hispanic kids and beat them up. So the Hispanic gangs backed up the Hispanic kids, causing a race riot.”

There are times, however, when gangs from different racial or ethnic backgrounds will form an alliance against a common rival. “You’ll see an African-American gang unite with a Hispanic gang to push out another Hispanic gang; or an Armenian gang hook up with a Hispanic gang to push out another Hispanic gang,” he says.

Drug Dealing, Violent Crime Usually Result

Just like in the community at large, gangs are usually involved in drug dealing at school too. According to Ornelas, “You’ll find that most of your drug dealers on campus have good attendance. It is their business, so they are there every day. They are usually the quiet ones who don’t get into too much trouble, and it is hard to catch them.” The drugs can be transported in gang members’ shoes, socks, hollowed-out textbooks or by females.

In addition to drug dealing, gang members are usually the ones committing the violent crimes on campus. Students can’t wear jewelry or carry cell phones, pagers or iPods™ because they are being robbed. Faculty members are being victimized as well. According to Ornelas, “The teachers targeted by gangs are the ones who are the most strict and have the most rigorous academic and behavior standards in the classroom.” Obviously, in this kind of environment, it is difficult if not impossible for students to learn.

The Solution: Gang Prevention Programs

Despite the difficulties that gang activities pose to campuses, there are programs that do successfully curb gang membership and involvement. One such solution is the GRIP program. This course attempts to discourage future gang membership by teaching children in Paramount, Calif., schools the harmful consequences of the gang lifestyle and by persuading them to choose positive alternatives.

Once a week for 15 weeks, GRIP officials go into fifth-grade classrooms and deliver the anti-gang message, which is 50 minutes in length per session. They talk about graffiti, gang violence, gang territory, peer pressure, tattoos and the drug abuse often associated with gang membership. They also provide information and statistical data showing how much more high school graduates and college graduates make than high school dropouts.

“We reach kids early, before they get to the age where they join gangs, which is their early teen years,” says GRIP’s Ostos. “You want to get to them before they start pulling away from the family and when they are still at the age when they will listen.

“I have a prime example of a young man I’m working with right now. He just doesn’t want to hear the anti-gang message. He’s a 14-year-old involved with gangs, and he’s determined to go that route. We really need to reach them before they get to that point in life.”

Another component of GRIP is a 10-week course for second-graders, which is a primer for the fifth-grade program.

But do these efforts pay off? According to several studies of GRIP, yes. Prior to participation, 50 percent of Paramount students were undecided about gang involvement, but after participation, 90 percent responded negatively toward gangs. A control group showed no change.

The community is benefiting as well. In 1981, prior to GRIP’s unveiling, one out of 24 Paramount residents were in gangs. Now only one in 63 are involved in the gang lifestyle.

Administrators, Principals, Teachers Must Be Supportive

For schools and districts wanting to start a gang prevention program, Ostos says it is important to get buy-in from the superintendent and other district officials. He explains that when he and other GRIP officials initiated their gang prevention program, “We explained what we wanted to do, and we got [the superintendent’s] support. Later on when we were ready to get the curriculum into the schools, we arranged for a presentation to the school board.” After the school board approved the program, Ostos met with local administrators and principals to schedule the classes.

Of course, before this all occurs, the district and community must acknowledge there is a problem in the first place. This, says Ostos, is a significant challenge. Quantifying the number of crimes on and around campus is one way to get their attention. Also, if there are a lot of behavior issues at school, it is important to make campus officials aware that these fights may be a direct result of gang activity.

Unfortunately, getting into the schools and having administrators allot time for the program can be a big hurdle. Ostos recommends gang prevention program officials be flexible with school administrators and faculty.

“At Paramount, we pretty much expect that the schools don’t want to let us in during the morning because they are focused on academics. We schedule our classes in the afternoon, and if things come up, we’re willing to reschedule, altho
ugh it is important to have a consistent time when you’re in the classroom every week.”

Parental involvement is another critical component to a successful gang prevention program. “You have parents out there who think this gang-style dress is the style of all kids,” adds Ostos. “That’s not really true. We need to educate parents because once kids start dressing in gang style, they are exhibiting a form of gang behavior. Ultimately, if they continue, they are going to get involved with gangs.”

Programs Give Students a Fighting Chance

With effective gang prevention and intervention programs, schools can do their part to make not only their campuses but also their communities unwelcoming places for gang activity.

“You need to cut the head off, that is take out the gang leadership at the top,” says Valdemar, “but you also dry up the recruitment at the bottom. I would fund an effective intelligence-based gang program to take out the leadership, and on the other end, do the gang prevention/early intervention programs on the streets and especially in the schools. Build a safe place, an alternative for young people so they can avoid gang involvement.”

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Robin Hattersley Gray is executive editor of Campus Safety magazine and can be reached at

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About the Author

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Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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