Especially in urban areas, schools have had to take steps to contain youth gangs. Although it is slightly dated, a report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention (2000) draws a clear connection between the presence of gangs in schools and students' violent behavior, possession of deadly weapons, and involvement with drugs. Alarmingly, over one third of youth age 12 and over describe the presence of at least one gang in their school. Security measures taken by schools including such things as guards and use of metal detectors correlate positively with gang activity.
Despite the obvious connection between gang culture and violence, gang membership remains the stuff of romance, though not in the way West Side Story portrayed the antagonism between the Sharks and the Jets. Today, gang culture is romanticized through popular music, particularly gangsta rap. Of course, the culture of gangs includes norms for dress, demeanor, and behavior that hold appeal for many youth. The appeal cuts across lines of race and sex, and to a great extent, socio-economic status. The clear association between gang culture and drugs means that youth who are attracted to gangs are also susceptible to drug abuse.
Although youth gangs pose clear danger to peers and adults in authority, only a small percentage of students are bonafide members of gangs, and it is probably the influence of gang culture that is of greatest concern. Gang culture attracts youth for reasons that reflect basic human needs, and so are readily understandable. These include:
- A need to be wanted and accepted . . . to belong
- Support, structure, and values
- The desire to be acknowledged and respected; to have status
- Excitement and "fun"
- A need for power and influence
Groups of young people band together for social, cultural and familial reasons. They also do so for protection. Youth group formation, which in some cases may include the evolution of the group into a gang, is thus often intertwined with violence or the threat of violence in the lives of young people. Over time, group identification becomes central to individual social identity, and the fate of the collective is inseparable from the security and social belonging of the individual.It is easy for whites to blame the appeal of gangsta lifestyle on aspects of Black society, but truthfully, the appeal of gang life has little to do with color. Gangs -- and the youth who comprise them -- come in all colors. Kids attracted to the gangsta lifestyle are typically alienated from traditional institutions (including school), are depressed and unmotivated, and have parents who have failed to forge meaningful relationships with them. Some of the kids are significantly impaired in their capacity to form meaningful bonds with others (see Acting Out, Part Nine: Empty Kids), but most are simply followers looking for a home.
Only this afternoon I was talking with a 17 year old youth who has adopted the behavior, dress and mannerisms of gang culture. He told me he and his friends get together to write and record hip-hop lyrics. He told me that the songs he writes authentically depict his personal history, which includes paternal abandonment and a mother addicted to crack. He also told me one of his buddies cries when his music is sung or recorded. When that happens, he said, both he and his friends comfort the boy. Their group is a family, albeit a fragile one.
The way schools are set up now, the number of children and youth needing genuine, caring relationships far outstrips our capacity to deliver the goods: the financial resources and trained personnel just aren't there. And no, special education does not help: Sorry, but no services are provided kids who are socially maladjusted! Only a few lucky kids will find teachers and counselors who have time and energy to meet their needs for affection and adult guidance. If we are to avoid a future society like that in Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange,* change must come, and schools are the logical place to start.
Comprehensive approaches have been shown to be effective when cities or communities are faced with significant gang violence. Operation Ceasefire in its various manifestations has reduced homicides among youth. The Department of Health & Human Services in its evaluation of school-based programs notes that several are effective, including the PATHs Program (see http://www.psychoed.net/ for discussion).
* Warning: This link takes you to an extremely graphic and troubling scene of home invasion by a youth gang set sometime in the future. As I write this, similar home invasions by youth, and particularly Asian youth, are happening with greater frequency.