Part 1 of 3: How to Handle Gangs on College Campuses
Higher education administrators are often unaware of or ignore the fact that gang members are on their campuses — here’s how you can address it.
Students across the country spend plenty of time learning about gang life. In urban, suburban and rural settings in every state, lessons are taught in K-12 schools that stress the dangers of children becoming involved in gangs.
For those who are already tied to street gangs, intervention programs exist to encourage leaving that lifestyle. While a more successful and fulfilling life is the ultimate promise of gang intervention programs, success in college for students that leave gangs isn’t always a reality.
While a more successful and fulfilling life is the ultimate promise of gang intervention programs, success in college for students that leave gangs isn’t always a reality.
Even when a student overcomes their ties to gang life, they usually don’t list this achievement on a college application. Their essay for consideration likely won’t include a reflection on all that they were involved in that held them back or how they intend to use those experiences to become successful and gang-free adults. Although that would likely be a great essay, the college admissions committee might have a difficult time putting that student’s application at the top of the acceptance pile.
Although that would likely be a great essay, the college admissions committee might have a difficult time putting that student’s application at the top of the acceptance pile.
The reality is that many students entering college do have strong ties to gang life, have not separated from these influences and have no intention of ever doing so. As highlighted in Gang Prevention 101, street gang involvement has become multi-generational.
On college campuses, ties to ethnic gangs are as strong as ever. Street and ethnic gangs now have their place in higher education and, in many ways, have been there for decades. Through the use of common identifiers, we will help you develop a better understanding of how gangs exist on college campuses, the internal and external influences, and how administrators can establish strong working relationships with their students and keep their families involved in the student support process.
Accept that Gangs Are on Campus
In pre-K-12 settings, educators often deny the existence of gangs within their school. They want to portray a positive image and don’t want to acknowledge that gang activity may have a negative effect on the school community. The irony is that the same administrators will say that gang activity plagues their community.
Those of us who are involved in this work know that this is impossible. This denial is likely a result of the second most common reason that pre-K-12 educators say they don’t have any gangs in their schools: they lack the basic knowledge of the gangs that exist within their communities.
Perhaps they have resisted the opportunities to learn or refused to expose themselves to this information, but many administrators simply don’t understand what they need to be aware of to effectively address the issue of gang involvement and help the students/families within their school community.
On the post-secondary level, denial exists for the same reasons. Lacking the proper information and wanting to maintain a positive image is understandable, but there is another factor that exists within higher education, and it cannot be ignored.
Colleges are businesses as well as learning institutions, and if a college or university were to acknowledge that their community has a gang problem or if anyone officially admitted that any of their students were also members of a gang, many students would simply not attend. That is clearly bad for business.
4 Steps Colleges Can Take
We recommend addressing the gang issue on campus by establishing specific, measurable, achievable and timely goals. These are:
- Develop an understanding of the gang’s history and the issues that exist surrounding
the gangs in your area.
- Broaden your knowledge base to develop an accurate perspective regarding your campus’s role within the local community. This includes how you work with grade schools, high schools and community organizations that are battling the same issue every day but may not have any regular connection with your college or university.
- Gather as much information as you can about the gangs in the community that surrounds your campus. Working closely with local law enforcement is a helpful first step in this process.
- Design an awareness program for everyone within your post-secondary community so that, when needed, the team can implement an effective response and support plan.
This article covers step one. The other steps will be covered in future issues of Campus Safety magazine.
Step 1: Develop an Understanding
Let’s start with a very simple question: Do you know what you are looking for? A very basic step in developing an understanding of gang life is learning how to identify individuals who are involved in gangs.
A common set of member identifiers such as tattoos or styles of dress, including accessories and color combinations, tend to be the most obvious visual elements that most experts use in their identification efforts. K-12 teachers in the classroom usually review student work frequently and catch students writing gang graffiti or using gang symbols on their assignments. Teachers in the K-12 setting also spend more hours each day with students, so patterns of behavior are easier to observe.
Additionally, there are other staff members who have regular contact with students, which allow staff and teachers to more frequently share information about a student’s suspected gang involvement and possible supportive resources.
Professors on a college campus, however, spend far less time with their students. While resident advisors in dormitory settings might have more of an opportunity to observe students in a casual setting, do they know the signs of gang involvement? Additionally, because commuting to a university campus is popular in urban settings, social life might never be observed on campus, thus making it impossible for someone employed by the campus to observe a gang-affiliated college student in their gang-connected setting.
Additionally, because commuting to a university campus is popular in urban settings, social life might never be observed on campus, thus making it impossible for someone employed by the campus to observe a gang-affiliated college student in their gang-connected setting.
So does this mean that gang involvement doesn’t affect a college? Not at all.
There are certain factors to be aware of as it relates to gang membership. The most basic is that membership is now generational and many current gang members have simply been born into gang life. The simple fact that mom and dad are members of a particular gang means that their offspring are automatically members of the gang as well.
Gangster at birth means gangster for life. While the average street gang does not include members who envision attending college or direct their youngest members to remain focused in school, some street gangs have over many years become wise to the fact that well-educated members of their gang have as much to offer as the less educated street level members
Earning degrees in accounting, business and law can result in a high functioning network of professionals who can eventually prove to be beneficial to well-organized gangs. Similarly, across the country there exist diverse ethnic communities where well-organized ethnic gangs conduct business in settings that never draw attention to illegal activity in the ways that street gangs might. Many gangs engage in high-stakes gambling, drug
Many gangs engage in high-stakes gambling, drug sales, and the sex trade, as well as other activities. With the assistance of well-educated members, a new world of opportunity is created that might look like legitimate businesses.
This trend is not new. A 2007 CBS News report, Gangs Ditch Tattoos, Go For College Look”, covered the efforts by MS-13 in their style and recruitment makeover. The article highlighted the experience of a female who abandoned her legitimate lifestyle to help the gang she belonged to engage in weapons smuggling. She even taught gang members the fine art of extorting “a storekeeper without bankrupting him.”
More recently, the New York Daily News reported on various CRIP sets arrested for financial fraud as they stole close to $100,000 from various banks. These weren’t traditional “stick-up jobs.” They involved an elaborate network of depositing counterfeit checks and then reaping the rewards (until their arrest).
Knowledge is Power
Many students entering college have strong ties to gang life and have no intentions of ever leaving the lifestyle. Steps two, three and four, which will be covered in future issues of Campus Safety magazine, will highlight the ways your institution of higher education can begin to address this segment of your campus community that is probably flying under your radar.