Gangs and Schools: Should School Leaders Try to Eradicate Gang Cultures or Use the Leadership Qualities of Gang Members?

… hundreds of police officers swept into the Grant and Manhattanville housing projects in Upper Manhattan and arrested scores of people suspected of belonging to three warring street gangs …

Since June 2010, Manhattan prosecutors have dismantled 11 street gangs in East Harlem, winning convictions against scores of young people, most of them on conspiracy charges. (NY Times, June 4, 2014

The police are doing their job; arrest the “bad guys,” the criminals, gang members involved in crimes ranging from murder to drug distribution to street crime, as well as aliening kids at the fringes of gangs. The deeper question is whether a few months down the road the gangs will be reformed. Are urban gangs and Afghan tribes similar? Months after the US military rids a village of Taliban control the Taliban slowly reclaim the villages.

The military in Afghanistan has used brute force, from air strikes to drone strikes to the use of Special Forces combined with building schools for young women, drilling wells and developing “relationships” with village elders, yet, a dozen years later the feudal leaders seem determined to reject Western values for the millennium-old values of their tribal, patriarchal, misogynistic society.

The governmental responses to urban street gangs appear equally frustrating.

In Afghanistan children are born into their tribe or clan, in our nation kids choose to join gangs and there is a wealth of research on why kids join gangs.

The site offers reasons why kids join gangs and offers advice to parents.

* A Sense of “Family”
* Need for food or money
* Desire for protection
* Peer Pressure
* Family history or tradition
* Excitement
* To Appear Cool

The Denver District Attorney proposes a similar list,

There are different reasons for different kids.

• Some are drawn by parties, girls and drugs.
• Some are looking for respect and power.
• Some find a feeling of caring and attention in a gang. It becomes almost a family to them.
• Some want to make money—to help out at home or to have nice clothes, etc.
• Some join for self-protection because they are picked on by other gang members.
• Some grow up in a neighborhood where it is almost a way of life.
• Most have some real or imagined problem at home that makes them prefer the streets.
• Some gang members are addicted to drugs. The problems at home can become worse because parents don’t know how to cope with their addiction

Psychology Today also explores why kids join gangs and offers parents signs if your kid is in a gang and what to do about it.

The underlying question is why gangs exist was explored by NYU Professor Pedro Noguero,

Most studies on violence in low income communities link violence and violent behavior to social disorder – the breakdown of community institutions … such as churches, schools, social organizations … the past role of the social institutions … was to impart values and create a basis for community cohesiveness, in areas where these institutions have broken down, only the family remains as an effective agent of socialization … in their absence families are left on their own to impart and maintain these values.

The progressive decline of the nuclear family … has contributed to the current state of social disorder present in most American cities … the added financial burden born by such families contributes significantly to the hardships endured by family members. Moreover, most studies on single parent households clearly demonstrate that such families are more likely to be impoverished, more likely to have children that drop-out of school or do poorly academically, and have a greater likelihood of dependence on public assistance, not only for the head of the household, but for future generations as well.

Available evidence suggests that violent behavior tends to increase when there is both an increase in social disorder and a decline in living conditions. Economically depressed areas that lack sufficient jobs and services are more likely to have high rates of violence than communities that have greater resources. While the correlation between poverty and crime is high, in recent times there has been resistance to the notion that the condition of poverty itself is responsible for high rates of crime … The tendency to blame the victims of poverty for their entrapment, has become the most popular and fashionable explanation of poverty, violence, crime, drug use and other social ills associated with the condition of poverty.

… several scholars have suggested that crime and violence are directly related to the absence of opportunities to achieve social mobility through legitimate channels. In many poor communities, the traditional avenues to mobility are inaccessible, either due to perception or the sheer lack of opportunity. Education and employment, the two routes that have most often been prescribed as the way out of the [ghetto], often lead to dead ends for aspiring young people. In light of this reality, young people are faced with four basic choices: they can conform – accepting the dead end job; they can escape – to drug or alcohol addiction; they can innovate – finding ways to circumvent the law to achieve personal goals; or they can rebel – rejecting the system that limits their opportunities.

The Gang Intel Unit of the NYC Police know a great deal about gangs, which building in which housing project is controlled by which gang, the leaders in each gang, smaller crews which spin off from gangs; however, the police are law enforcement. Decades of mayors, from Ed Koch to David Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani to Michael Bloomberg have, to one extent or another concentrated on law enforcement and not addressed the underlying reasons of why gangs exist. .

Research tells us that living in gang-infested neighborhoods; communities which suffer from the traumas of violence have an impact on student learning.

New research shows the mere fact of being poor can affect kids’ brains, making it difficult for them to succeed in school.

Children living in poor neighborhoods are more likely to suffer traumatic incidents, like witnessing or being the victims of shootings, parental neglect or abuse. They also struggle with pernicious daily stressors, including food or housing insecurity, overcrowding and overworked or underemployed, stressed-out parents.

Untreated, researchers have found these events compound, affecting many parts of the body. Studies show chronic stress can change the chemical and physical structures of the brain.

School leaders and teachers must accept the kids that line up at the door – whether or not they are gang members. The effectiveness of school leaders varies widely.

Sitting at a building council the principals from the four schools in the building whined about the incessant fights in the building.

I asked, “Do you talk with the gang leaders?”

A principal responded, “Why would I want to do that?”

I thought, “Because they run your building.”

In another building a principal explained how he identified the gang leadership kids in his building, speaks with them every day, stays up to date on Facebook postings, and uses the influence of the gang leaders to avoid fights and keeps the school calm.

An outside evaluator asked a principal why he didn’t have an afterschool program in a middle school. The principal explained many of his kids pick up younger siblings in elementary schools and kids didn’t feel safe walking home alone – they wanted to walk in groups. The evaluator retorted, “That’s an excuse.” The principal was keeping his kids safe – the evaluator was clueless.

School leaders may have read all the right articles and books, may fully understand the “instructional shifts” and commit the Common Core to memory, if they cannot assure a safe school environment, act as a role model and mentor, lead a team of teachers, and, yes, use the leadership traits of gang members, they will not be successful.

Whether in tony suburban communities or the hardscrabble streets of the inner city building culture defines effective schools.

Unfortunately we can’t wave wands and eradicate poverty and gangs; we can create pathways to a better life for all kids whether or not they belong to gangs.


One response to “Gangs and Schools: Should School Leaders Try to Eradicate Gang Cultures or Use the Leadership Qualities of Gang Members?

  1. Marc Korashan

    Ed asks, “whether a few months down the road the gangs will be reformed?” And the answer lies in the reality of these communities.

    Street gangs have morphed since I was a boy from a collective that provided family, support and activities into businesses that control the trade in drugs and other illegal activities. As businesses they serve a function in their neighborhood that cannot be replaced by independent vendors. The independents are likely to fight over sales and, like all businessmen, will work to control a larger market share, thereby creating the need for a gang to provide stability and manage the now larger workforce.

    The reasons that young people join gangs haven’t changed, the weaponry and purpose of the gangs has. If NYC wants to do something about gangs, then it must offer young people meaningful alternatives. It must, as Ed suggests, enlist leaders in a creative endeavor that will mean something to them.

    How about organizing gangs to reclaim abandoned buildings and turn them into low income housing for neighborhood residents? Students can learn a trade, learn to work cooperatively, and make a positive contribution. They can walk by the building years later and say, “I did that,” in the same way that high steel workers show off their products when they tour the city with friends and family.

    Vacant lots can be reclaimed, community recycling projects can be started, trees and gardens can be planted, and so on if we find ways to tap into the energy and desire of young people to make a difference.

    We have to offer a choice that is as meaningful on all the dimensions that Ed cites before in order to make the decision to join a gang and all the risks that entails less desirable.


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