Gangs & School Safety

Gang issues are priority concerns for many urban, suburban, and rural school, law enforcement, and other youth-service professionals.

We continue to see an upswing in school and community-based gang activity in our work on school safety across the country.

School gang activity can escalate quickly.  Educators need to understand school gang prevention and preparedness measures before a crisis hits.

National School Safety and Security Services has extensive experience with school gang issues.  Our president, Kenneth Trump, created and supervised one of the most successful school district youth gang units in the early 1990s which reduced school-related gang crimes and discipline incidents in the Cleveland City School District by 39% over three years. Ken later served three years as assistant director of a federal-funded suburban anti-gang initiative to deal with emerging gangs in suburban schools and communities.

In mid-2006, Ken was appointed by the United States Attorney of the Northern District of Ohio to serve as a Steering Committee member for the Cleveland Comprehensive Anti-Gang Initiative, one of six model projects in the nation awarded by U.S. Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales.  Ken served as Chairman of the Prevention Committee and as a member of the Executive Committee for the initiative.

Defining Gangs

There is no universally accepted definition of a gang.  Definitions continue to be debated by the nation’s most experienced and knowledgeable academicians who study gangs.

A youth gang can be considered as a collectivity of primarily adolescents and young adults who:

  • interact frequently
  • are frequently and deliberately involved in illegal activities
  • share a common collective identity
  • and typically adopt certain methods of identification and/or claim control over certain

Gangs and School Safety

The key factor rests with their collective frequent and deliberate involvement in illegal activities and/or violations of school policies and procedures. The focus by school and law enforcement should be on the behavior (misconduct and/or criminal) associated with gang-behavior in schools. But school officials must also recognize that gang-related incidents that happen in the community can easily spill over into the schools, and gang-related incidents that originate in the schools can easily spill over into the community.

Why Do Kids Join Gangs?

Factors motivating kids to join gangs vary individual to individual. A multitude of social and economic reasons can be involved. Power, status, security, friendship, family substitute, economic profit, substance abuse influences, and numerous other factors can influence kids to join gangs.  Gang members also cross all socio-economic backgrounds and boundaries regardless of age, sex, race, economic status, and academic achievement.

Each case must be evaluated on an individual basis, thus the importance of knowing what to look for and how to intervene early before the problem becomes entrenched!

Gang versus Non-Gang Activity

Gang violence is different from non-gang violence in several ways:

  • Gang violence typically involves a larger number of individuals
  • Gang-related violence tends to be more retaliatory and escalates much more quickly than non-gang violence
  • Gang activity is usually more violent in nature and often involves a greater use of weapons.

School and public safety officials must look at gang activity differently and not as one-on-one, isolated incidents.  Otherwise, the problem can escalate so quickly that a school lunchroom fight between rival gang members will escalate into a potential drive-by shooting just hours later at school dismissal.

School officials must still discipline individual students involved in gang offenses on a case-by-case basis based upon their individual actions in violating school rules, but educators must see the forest with the trees and recognize that these offenses are interrelated and part of a broader pattern of gang-related misconduct and violence.

Recognizing Gangs

Typically, people look for graffiti or bandannas as the main indicators of a gang presence.  However, gang indicators can be quite subtle, particularly as awareness increases among school officials, law enforcement, parents, and other adults.

Depending upon the specific gang activity in a specific given school or community, gang identifiers may include:

  • Graffiti:  Unusual signs, symbols, or writing on walls, notebooks, etc.
  • “Colors”:  Obvious or subtle colors of clothing, a particular clothing brand, jewelry, or haircuts (But not necessarily the traditional perception of colors as only bandannas)
  • Tattoos:   Symbols on arms, chest, or elsewhere on the body
  • “Lit” (gang literature):  Gang signs, symbols, poems, prayers, procedures, etc. in notebooks or other documents
  • Initiations:  Suspicious bruises, wounds, or injuries resulting from a “jumping in” type initiation
  • Handsigns:  Unusual hand signals or handshakes
  • Behavior:  Sudden changes in behavior or secret meetings

and many other methods. One or several of these identifiers may indicate gang affiliation. It is important to remember, however, that identifiers help recognize gang affiliation, but a focus on behavior is especially important.

Educators, law enforcement, parents, and other youth-service providers need regular training and updates to monitor the changing nature of gang identifiers and, most importantly, gang behavior in their schools and communities.  Due to the ever-evolving nature of gang identifiers, and the increasingly common trend of gang members going “lower profile” with fewer visible signs of gang membership to avoid detection by authorities, the best training on gang identifiers is often provided by local law enforcement and other gang specialists who are familiar with the latest local trends.

Denial Versus Acknowledging Gangs

Gangs thrive on anonymity, denial, and lack of awareness by school personnel. The gang member whose notebook graffiti goes unaddressed today may be involved in initiations, assaults, and drug sales in school in the near future.

The condition that makes the school environment most ripe for gang activity is denial.  The most common initial response to gangs in almost all communities and schools is denial because public officials are more focused on image concerns for their organizations while they should be focusing on dealing with the problem.  The longer they deny, the more entrenched the problem becomes and in the end, the worse their image will be.

Gangs and School Safety

Even when school and community officials come out of denial and acknowledge a gang presence, they tend to downplay it and do a “qualified admittance” of the problem.  They acknowledge it when they can’t deny it any longer, but even then they tend to downplay it and underestimate the extent of a problem.  They only people those who play this political game fool in the long run is themselves because the longer they deny and downplay the problem, the worse it becomes, and the bigger gang problem — and image problem — they will face in the end.

The flip side of the issue is that we also do not want to overstate the problem in a school or community, put people in unnecessary fear, or give the gangs more credit and status than they want to claim for themselves.  The majority of kids in a given school are not in a gang and do not want gang activity in their schools.  The problem, though, is that a small number of gang members, along with their associates outside of the school, can account for a very significant amount of violence in a very short period of time if their activities go unaddressed.

School officials can prevent such occurrences – or at least reduce the risks and impact of those which do occur – by training their staff on gang identification, behavior, prevention and intervention strategies, and related school security and emergency preparedness issues.

Managing and Preventing Gangs in Schools

School and community responses requires a balanced approach of prevention, intervention, and enforcement strategies.  Schools must work very closely with law enforcement to share information on gang activity since what happens in the community spills over into the schools and vice versa.

Practical steps schools can take include:

  • Communicate to staff, students, and parents that schools are neutral grounds and that gang, drug, and weapon activities will receive priority response
  • Apply discipline in a timely, firm, fair, and consistent manner
  • Institute student anti-gang education and prevention programs
  • Establish a mechanism for student conflict mediation
  • Train school personnel and parents in gang identification, intervention, and prevention techniques
  • Obtain input from youth on violence-related concerns and prevention strategies
  • Establish cooperative relationships and communication networks with parents, law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies, social services, and other community members. Set up mechanisms and structures to promote information-sharing and coordination among agencies addressing youth, gangs, and related public safety efforts.

Gangs are a community problem, but schools are a part of that community and cannot operate in isolation while hoping that the gang members will drop their gang alliances and activities once they cross the schoolhouse door.

Gang Trends and Cycles

Gang activity in many (but not all) schools and communities seemed to hit a peak in the mid-90’s, leveling off and declining in the late 90’s in many areas.  Of course, there are exceptions to this and it is important to say that the specific trends vary community to community.   An upswing in school and community gang activity began appearing in many school communities around the 2003-2004 school year and today we currently see a clear upward trend in gang activity in many communities across the nation.  Unfortunately, many of the gang prevention, intervention, and enforcement efforts in place in communities back in the 1990s have been disbanded, dismantled, and dissolved due to a lack of funding and community support, so many communities are starting fresh in dealing with gang problems.

Gang activity tends to be cyclical.  It goes up, hits a peak, dips, and then eventually comes back up again.  The problem is that when it dips, it always seems to come back up at a higher level of violence and severity than its last peak plateau.

Gang development is a process, not an event.  Schools and communities do not simply wake up one morning and find that gangs suddenly appeared overnight. Schools must work with parents, youth, criminal justice agencies, social service officials, businesses, and the broader community representatives.  The key rests with school and community officials quickly recognizing the presence of gang behaviors and activity in a timely manner to nip it in the bud before it becomes entrenched.

For More Information & School Gang Training

For more information on school gangs and our related school safety training, email Ken Trump.