The issue of gangs in schools is all too common of a reality. Teachers can take steps to keep gang activity out of schools and keep students safe.
Gangs have been in existence in America since immigrants began arriving. Early gangs were formed as cultural groups who began rivalry due to communication barriers and cultures. Today’s gangs are generally formed along racial and cultural barriers just like the first gangs in America. Gangs can be made up of males or females, any race, any culture, rich or poor, failing students or honor roll students. Violence from gangs continues to be a problem in our school systems, taking the safety out of our learning environments. Why might adolescents want to join a gang, how do you spot the warning signs of gangs, and what are preventative measures to take to keep gangs out of your school?
There are approximately 21,500 gangs and about 731,000 active gang members in the United States. Twenty percent of students surveyed in 1997 reported that they had experienced gang activity at their school in the past thirty days. Gangs and violence in schools are problems that cannot be ignored. Since gangs thrive on anonymity, it is important to be able to spot gang warning signs and take action before conditions in the school get out of control.
There are certain changes to look for in a student who you might suspect is in a gang. First, watch for changes in behavior like skipping school or a sudden drop in grades. He or she might begin hanging out with new people and in different or unusual places that might be known as gang “turf.” Watch for gang symbols on notebooks and in textbooks, and watch for gang mottos or procedures in notebooks as well. Tattoos are a common way for gang members to be identified. Gang members tend to have a group identity instead of individual identities; common dress, common brand names, and common haircuts could point to gang activity within a group. Most gangs have a hand sign that they use that is usually very obvious. Gangs normally have some sort of initiation ritual that involves violence, so be aware of any suspicious bruises or wounds.
Most students don’t want to be in gangs and they would like to have a peaceful, safe learning environment. Then why do adolescents join gangs? Many of them are looking for a role model that they do not have at home. Some are looking for power, status, a sense of belonging, and excitement. Others are simply looking to have physical needs met: safety and food, and maybe the goods to feed an addiction. Gangs find ways to make money illegally, and that ensures that the members will be taken care of. Some kids join gangs because it is a family tradition that they can’t easily escape if they want to, unless they run away and possibly face homelessness.
Just because a group of students in school might wear the same thing to school some days doesn’t necessarily mean that they are involved in gang activity. The same is true with two groups getting in a fight in the hallway. Gang activity, on the other hand, is more violent and often involves weapons. It escalates in intensity quickly, and is not just that one isolated incident. A fight at school might later lead to a shooting with gang activity.
After school activities are good for keeping students occupied and out of trouble, give students positive role models, and build character, confidence, and self-esteem. This is one way to prevent gangs from forming at your school, or to keep students away from gang activity that may be present at your school. Calling attention to the gangs and taking action against them is a way to help keep them from thriving. Gangs generally want to be anonymous, and when they loose the anonymity they loose some of the excitement and gain fear of being prosecuted. Metal detectors and school security could slow gang violence in schools due to fear of being caught with a weapon and prosecuted.
If it is evident that a student may be at risk for being in a gang, it is always best to report it to administrators and counselors. Sometimes the smallest steps help the most in preventing situations that may become out of control. By knowing the warning signs and stopping the problem before it escalates, you will be doing your school and your community a favor.
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