Part 3 of 3: Real-World Solutions to Gangs on College Campuses

Campuses that work with law enforcement, create policies and provide support to at-risk students have the best chance of discouraging gang involvement.

Part 3 of 3: Real-World Solutions to Gangs on College Campuses

By addressing student needs for belonging and achievement, institutions of higher education can create safer and more caring college communities.

In part one of this series, we recommended developing an understanding of a gang’s history and the issues that exist surrounding the gangs in your area. In part two, we covered the second step, which involves broadening your knowledge base to develop an accurate perspective regarding how your campus plays a role within the local community.

In this final part, we cover steps three and four. Step three involves working closely with law enforcement to gather as much information as you can about the gangs in the community that surrounds your campus. Step four involves designing an awareness program for everyone within your post-secondary community so that, when needed, the team can implement an effective response and support plan.

Step 3: Gather as Much Information as Possible and Set Strong Policies

All staff on a college campus and within each college community must become familiar with the signs connected to localized gangs. This could be as simple as knowing the popular names, increasing observations in classrooms, dorms and common spaces, including the cafeteria, lounges and restrooms.

The most effective way to accomplish this is to work closely with local law enforcement. This includes information sharing and staff training.

However, with all of the resources available online, it’s almost inexcusable for anyone concerned with gangs in their community to not conduct simple research on gangs and gang activity. There are numerous books on this topic, and websites have been created by experienced individuals and reputable agencies offering suggestions and other resources.

Understanding graffiti is as important on a college campus as it is in the K-12 setting. Students still draw on desks, cafe tables, bathroom stalls and in other spaces on a campus where they want others to see their markings. Dorm life provides increased opportunity to mark one’s territory with what might appear to be cryptic writing that most adults do not comprehend. Study your surroundings. If it exists in the community, it exists on campus.

Equally important is the need to be aware of the many forms of social media used across your institution.

Finally, select staff members should become involved in various agencies that can provide further information and assistance. Usually, this will include staff involved in campus safety, but you should also include clinical and support service staff, resident advisors and those who oversee clubs and Greek life.

You can find a list of reputable gang investigator associations at www.nagia.org (National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations). While some associations might be exclusive to law enforcement, some do allow membership by non-law enforcement professionals.

Additional links to valuable resources can also be found on campussafetymagazine.com.

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.

Schools should also conduct a review of existing campus policies on student behavior. Codes of conduct, rules of behavior and moral and ethical standards must be clear that the college does not allow students to engage in gang-related behavior. This might highlight penalties for students found to be involved in a display of gang apparel or accessories or writing graffiti.

Equally important is aligning campus policy with local law, especially for students found guilty of infractions/violations who are adults. If their behavior is criminal, it could result in more serious and life-altering consequences. By ensuring that campus policy and local law are connected where appropriate, a strong message is sent that each student must hold themselves accountable for their behavior.

While lower level “quality of life” infractions could appear on the surface to just be “juvenile behavior,” not addressing these infractions creates a permissive environment where gangs will flourish and not fear escalating their activity and, at some point, increase their visibility on your campus.

Step 4: Design an Awareness Program That Enables Effective Response and Support

As previously mentioned, there are many factors that contribute to gang activity on college campuses. The success of gangs depends in many ways on anonymity, denial and an overall lack of awareness by campus administrators. This is true on elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels, and this section will offer strategies and recommendations that will be differentiated for students, parents, faculty and administrators. When combined, services and support can be offered in a multi-disciplinary fashion for effective social, emotional and academic success by students.

STUDENTS:

Attending college is a life-changing experience. For some students, particularly those from low-income and first-generation households, they might not have effective support or encouragement from their friends and family at home to help guide them through this new venture. This is not to say that their family and friends are not excited and eager to help, but if there are little to no funds and this is the first time anyone in the family has gone to college, extreme challenges will exist.

In many ways, the student will literally experience everything on his or her own. It is important for students to reach out to others and build relationships on campus to create a sense of belonging. How then is this done in a way that the student is less vulnerable to those who may provide a sense of belonging but with negative affiliations, such as a gang? The process begins prior to the student starting college.

Before entering college, students must visit the campus multiple times and during many of these visits, make appointments to meet with college representatives. Many of these visits are free, but students will only know if they ask. Colleges also offer summer bridge programs that not only offer an opportunity to jump-start a student’s mind but also “bridge the gap” in academic areas where he or she might need additional support.

Remediation classes in math, English, speech and writing labs are regularly offered and are often well attended by incoming freshman. Other areas where summer programs offer support are focused on social networking with faculty and peers; most of whom will have the same worries being new to the college experience. Students should seek out various college clubs (not referring to fraternities or sororities), including those that offer opportunities to take on a campus leadership role.

PARENTS:

Many students hesitate or delay asking for help for a variety of reasons, and parents must remain aware of these reasons and assess their own needs and hesitation to ask for help.

First, the person needing help might not know where to turn. They might not be aware of the various resources that are available and know how to access them. Some of the most commonly needed and most available services that students and parents should become familiar with on a college campus include:

  • Student Advisory Office: This office is where academic and career advisors are available. Staff could be professional counselors or professors assigned by the major departments across the campus. Advisors often help by guiding students through course planning and review their progress throughout each term. Career services might work with students to secure jobs and internships on and off campus, and ensure that the current course of study is aligned with career goals.
  • Peer Tutoring/Academic Support Centers: Unlike high schools where students might be mandated to receive these services, at institutions of higher education, these services tend to be used mostly by highly self-motivated students. Parents must encourage their children to seek help early in the term to remain in control of their academic progress.
  • Campus Medical and Mental Health Centers: Students and parents must both be aware of the locations, hours and services available in the medical and mental health centers. As with any emergency service, learning about the services that are available during an emergency is not the most effective way to avoid needing these services altogether. Be mindful that in many schools, the emergency medical center is not in the same building as clinical or counseling services. A campus counseling center (it could go by other names) offers services to students who might be experiencing stress or could provide ongoing support to students with pre-existing psychological issues.
  • Spiritual Life/Campus Ministries: Such services could be valuable to both parents and students, especially when students are far from home. Not only are religious services offered, but social opportunities exist that can be beneficial to all. Students and parents should consider attending services while on their campus visit.

FACULTY AND ADMINISTRATION:

Another obstacle to overcome for higher education institutions is how to effectively integrate support services with instruction. Many schools are designed with specific academic divisions with student services located in other parts of the campus, usually disconnected from one another. Each department functions in a parallel manner with little coordination. Interestingly, there may also be some degree of competition between these divisions in their effort to receive some of the limited budgetary resources.

The most effective strategies, however, are those that involve student support services including academic, counseling, tutoring and financial aid (where applicable) holistically because they promote successful student outcomes.

Inspired by a research brief released by MDRC (December 2016) titled “Boosting College Success Among Men of Color”, the following program components can help all students who struggle academically, socially, financially and/or are struggling with the adjustment to college life in general:

  • Bring instructional and support service staff together consistently during planning and assessment stages
  • Offer intensive college orientation programs for new students where both instructional and support service staff play a very involved role
  • Create learning communities where cohorts of students take two or more courses that are linked together with shared curriculum and course content
  • Offer counselor facilitated “student success” courses that are aligned with academic courses. Joint assignments can be created that relate to the key lessons of both divisions.
  • Create a dedicated space on campus where students can come to study, work in small groups and receive tutoring from faculty and students alike
  • Create a counseling caseload among incoming freshman that as students advance, can be lowered and supported by staff within their major fields of study
  • Encourage department heads to conduct classroom observations to gather information about student learning and faculty experiences. This can include peer reviews to offer a more supportive and less threatening experience for faculty.
  • Develop mentoring programs that have the most applicable match between the mentor and the student. These programs also include training for the mentors and offer a connection to both academic and support service divisions.

Overall, both the research by the MDRC and our own experiences suggest strongly that low levels of college preparation, a lack of academic achievement before and during college, a lack of appropriate financial support (including having to work full-time while enrolled in classes) and inadequate social, emotional or academic support create extreme barriers for college graduation. Similarly, it is this same struggle through the same obstacles that enables gangs to thrive in and around college campuses. When the college community fails to provide the necessary supports to students, gangs will always find a way to do so.

Create a Safer, More Caring College Environment

By addressing student needs for belonging and achievement, institutions of higher education will create safer and more caring college communities. This support must extend past freshman year and continue throughout the student’s scholastic lifecycle.

At any point for a variety of reasons, students can lose their way and enter what has been referred to as the “sophomore slump” when they avoid making critical program decisions and the student’s course of study becomes delayed. In addition, prior to the year of graduation, students may fear their next steps in life and begin to fall behind in their studies or develop other social or economic problems that result in self-sabotage. This makes more experienced students as vulnerable to negative influences as new and inexperienced students are when entering college directly out of high school.


Editor’s Note: This is part three of Campus Safety magazine’s three-part series on gangs on college campuses. Parts one and two appeared
in the August and September issues, respectively, as well as on CampusSafetyMagazine.com

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