How Schools Can Help Curb Violence Among Youth

November 22, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

In Portsmouth, Virginia, the local police department and the Up Center are reaching out to the public as they seek mentors to help steer youth in the right direction. The two organizations have come together due to an increase in gang violence involving middle and high school students in Portsmouth, according to a news report published last week. About 20 police officers had signed up to be mentors so far. Reports of an increase in cases of violence among youth are not limited to Virginia. In Aurora, Colorado, where two separate shootings left nine teenagers injured last week, a local church hosted a “State of Emergency” meeting that brought together people across various fields — including the local police department, mental health experts, and survivors of crime, among others.

The meeting in Aurora was an open space for young people to share and for adults to listen and help, a news report said. The emergency meeting was held less than a mile from Hinkley High School, where three teens were shot in the campus parking lot. Police have arrested three 16-year-old suspects and say the incident is gang-related. At Salisbury in North Carolina, a local high school was the venue for a friendly football contest that pitted police officers, city employees and former high school athletes against one another to raise money for Uplift Academy — a new youth intervention initiative designed to combat gang culture, influence and recruitment in local schools.

With reports of youth-on-youth violence back in the spotlight, in this piece we give you an introduction on the role schools can play in preventing the youth from falling prey to gang memberships. Why is that important? Youth violence is not an issue that can be solved with just the participation and involvement of law enforcement; ditto schools, or even parents and families. It’s a crisis that requires the coming together of various sections of the community for a comprehensive, and more effective, approach.

The information in the rest of this piece is based on reports by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and the National Gang Center. (In October 2009, the National Youth Gang Center, which had been funded by the OJJDP since 1995, merged with the National Gang Center, which had been funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance since 2003.)

Gang Behavior On Campus

Do students who are members of gangs leave behind their affiliations once they enter campus? They don’t, say the OJJDP and the National Gang Center. “Gangs, unchecked and unidentified in a school setting, often engage in threat and intimidation; physical and cyber bullying; fighting; recruiting; and criminal activities such as the introduction and use of weapons, assault, sex trafficking, vandalism, and illegal drug sales. The absence of a well-developed, strategic, collaborative, and effective school safety plan can lead to violence and other unsafe and disruptive activities within a school setting,” the OJJDP-National Gang Center added in a report.

The first step towards combating gang activity on campus is, of course, identifying such activity. Here’s where it can become challenging though for both schools and law enforcement. How do you know when teenagers are just expressing themselves and are part of harmless informal clubs, and when they may pose a threat to the safety of other students and school staff? While it’s hard to come up with a concrete list, and of course differs from case to case, the report says there are a few common gang identifiers that schools can be on the lookout for. Those include but are not limited to:

  • Cliques of students wearing the same colors in clothes, bandanas, specific types of belts/buckles, jewelry, charms, or team sports clothing
  • Tattoos, graffiti, and drawings/sketches on folders, notebooks, or school assignments, including area codes and geographical locations represented numerically
  • Hand signs, handshakes, and other expressions of gang association or affiliation

However, none of these on their own may be conclusive proof that a student is engaging in gang activity. And determining proof is a process that typically involves sharing of information between school personnel and local law enforcement.

For instance, if a student is displaying any or all of those signs, the school could also consider their behavior and activities in spaces like lunchrooms, hallways, bathrooms, the schoolyard, the bus stop, the bus, extracurricular school-sponsored events, and other spaces where students can freely congregate before, during, and after school. If schools suspect that there could be gang activity on campus, they could also check if any establishments in the vicinity, such as apartment complexes, stores, restaurants, parks, etc are being used for gang-related activity. Repeated incidents of disrespect, threat, and intimidation by specific students (verbal and nonverbal) would also, for instance, need to be examined.

The best strategies are proactive, per the OJJDP-National Gang Center. That includes:

  • Prevention — Gang prevention is based on early identification of occurrences and trends within the school and community and the provision of evidence-based services and activities designed to discourage a youth’s decision to join a gang.
  • Intervention — Gang intervention strategies focus on youth who exhibit some level of engagement in a gang and are provided with evidence-based services to facilitate gang disengagement.
  • Suppression — Gang suppression strategies related to the school environment focus on proactive measures to mitigate many of the factors that can contribute to disruptive, gang-related behaviors that pose a threat to the learning environment and to the safety and wellbeing of others.

What kind of prevention, intervention and suppression strategies can schools consider? We will cover that in the next part of this mini series on youth gangs and violence.

This is the second part of a mini series Biometrica is doing on youth gangs and youth violence. The first one, an introduction to the OJJDP’s programs to combat youth violence, can be found here.