Youth Gangs and Education

Renee Cinquino, Alanna Rowe, Audrey McLendon, Amy Clark


Particularly in urban environments, youth gang violence has escalated in schools in the past fifteen years("Studying Gangs", 1996). Likewise, gang activity is increasingly spreading from urban to suburban and rural areas at a "steady rate." This behavior has permeated schools, negatively impacting students, teachers, and the school atmosphere at large. Students, parents, teachers, and members of school administrations should be concerned with this trend.

Youth gangs are loosely defined as an organized group of delinquent adolescents with a shared group identity whose behaviors include antisocial and criminal activities. These activities often entail violent behavior, drug use and distribution, and illegal weapons possession. While young gangs have stereotypically been thought of as a "minority issue" in the inner-city, the majority of youth gang members and gangs are in fact composed of Caucasian students.

While the percentage of students involved in gangs is still small, youth gangs can profoundly, negatively impact the scholastic learning environment and school culture. Issues of safety draw attention away from the primary focus of schools which is to educate. They can have lingering affects not only on the academic achievement of those actively involved, but also of the bystanders of innocent members of the school community.

This site compiles information based on research about gang characteristics, risk factors predicting young gang involvement, protective factors deterring gang involvement, gang intervention programs, and the impact of gang activity on schools.

Gang Characteristics

Though there's no perfect definition of youth gang, most gangs share a considerable number of characteristics including the frequent and deliberate involvement in illegal activities, sharing a common collective identity, and the adoption of certain methods of identification and or claims of control over an area of a school, or neighborhood that they live in.

Burnett and Waltz effectively summarize the characteristics of gangs, and informs us of typical types of gang activity, gang dress, gang actions, and gang criminal involvement (1994, Section 1, para. 3).

Howell and Lynch analyzed three main points in their article: the characteristics of gangs, the reasons for increased gang presence in certain schools, and the impact of gangs on victimization at school. The students felt the most important indicators of gang presence were: “the gang had a name, they had a recognized leader, they had their own territory or “turf”, they had a specific graffiti “tag” or marking, they commit acts of violence, they were specific clothing brands or “colors”, and they had tattoos” (2000, section 2, para. 3).

An article by Ruth Struyk defines gangs as a “group of individuals who have sworn allegiance, and have selected a name to represent their allegiance, and seek to enhance their status through criminal activities”. She also pointed out that the participation of students in gangs negatively affects the academic success of students. Also gang participation and prevalence in schools has become somewhat difficult for teachers and administrators to identify. This study identified the disconnect between school location and teacher location as a factor that affects the amount of knowledge about gangs in the school neighborhood. Often teachers commute to the district in which they teach and are therefore removed from the neighborhood where their students live. It is also difficult identify gang participation because signs are ever changing in order to allude authorities such as teachers and administrators as well as law enforcement.

Risk and Protective Factors

A risk factor for any particular variable measures the increased chances, when these factors are present, that an individual will be susceptible to a negative trend. Protective factors are those factors that either buffer the affects of risk factors or measure the factors distant from risk factors on a continuum.

Burnett and Waltz researched the reasons gangs develop in educational institutions and why they are appealing to students. The authors found four factors in the formation of gangs in schools, including the lack of support structures at home, sense of belonging to the member, and recruitment of new members (1994).

Gottfredson and Gottfredson looked at a number of statistics to understand the likelihood of students joining a gang. They then took the information to analyze the current models for gang prevention and described a number of new intervention programs (2001).

After conducting a number of surveys on students, Gottfredson and Gottfredson describe reasons why students become involved with gangs: poverty and disorganization within the community, public schools receiving students with behavior problems from various sources, and the student perception that the school is unsafe (Gotfredson, et. al., 2001, p. 3).

The Walker-Barnes research indicated that gang members' relationships with their peers and parents are driving factors as to what activities students are involved in. Walker-Barnes surveyed a large group of teens from the Miami area, which included fairly equal numbers of ethnic groups. Walker-Barnes analyzed the amount of parental control to gang activity level, and found that it was very different across the ethnic lines. She found that Caucasian students with parents that were very controlling were more likely to be involved with gangs, but African American students with very controlling parents were less likely to be involved with gangs (2001).

Hill and Howell researched predictors for adolescent gang involvement. The longitudinal study involved 808 fifth-grade students in an identified high-poverty and high-crime area of the city of Seattle. These fifth-grade students were interviewed every year from age 10 to age 18. The predictive factors identified in this study with a high correlative value to gang involvement include neighborhood-level predictors, family-level predictors, school-level predictors, peer-level predictors, and individual-level predictors. The Hill-Howell research article discovered several childhood risk factors for adolescent gang membership. They discovered that early drug use, fighting, hitting a teacher and throwing objects were strong predictors of eventual gang membership. They also uncovered that a child’s attendance at religious services could not be used as a predictor for gang membership. They also found that family composition was a significant predictor; children with violent parents and antisocial siblings were likely to join a gang as adolescents. Their research also showed that students that have had a poor elementary school experience were more likely to join a gang. Overall, the researchers found that gang membership frequently results from anti-social home life, failures in school, and problematic behaviors as children.

Taylor and Peterson investigated student victimization and gang membership. They found that a high percentage of students who had been victimized by a gang member eventually became a member of a gang. Additionally, the researchers found that many aspiring gang members must commit acts of violence or victimize another in a process of initiation. They also uncovered that the greatest risk of violence against gang members actually comes from within the gang itself. Many new members experience beatings as part of an initiation process and can be subject to harsh discipline from other members for breaking gang rules.

A study conducted by Dishion, Nelson, and Yasui focused on elementary students and their behavior. The researchers studied the same students over a significant period of time. The study determined that gang participation is related to antisocial behavior in school. The students who were outcasts tended to stick together and eventually participated in antisocial behavior as a group. These students with antisocial tendencies eventually banded together to form their own group. This grouping based on social patterns is then associated with behaviors such as committing crimes and using drugs. These behaviors are also indicators of gang involvement.

In a study by Evans, Fitzgerald, Weigel, and Chvilicek, the prevalence of gangs in rural and urban settings was examined by surveying students in both settings. The findings were mixed; more rural students reported knowing someone in a gang that the urban students did. Students in the urban setting still reported feeling unsafe in their neighborhood whereas students in a rural setting did not report this feeling. Even though the results of the survey did not show a significant difference between gangs in the rural setting versus gangs in the urban setting, this did show that gangs are prevalent in both areas.

Wright and Fitzpatrick found that when students feel unsafe in schools, they are unable to learn as effectively. In school fighting is a major issue affecting the climate and learning environment of schools. The researches sampled 1,642 African American children and adolescents in a central Alabama school district. The results of the study found that poor grades, parental abuse, and gang affiliation were the highest risk factors for in school fighting. Young gang affiliation not only affects life on the streets, but directly impacts school culture.

Ryan et al. investigated the “protective effects of parental support, self-disclosure to parents, parent-initiated monitoring of adolescent behavior, and relationships with school personnel” in relation to gang involvement, substance abuse, and school violence (Ryan, 2007, p.1060). The study found that there was no significant link between adult relationships and gang involvement. Self-disclosure to parents was only relevant in “mixed race” participants. Otherwise, this factor was not correlative.
One factor the study found was correlative was race. Mexican American students, African American students, Native American students, and students of “mixed race” were more likely that Anglos / Whites to be involved with gangs. Substance abuse and risk-seeking qualities were also directly correlated to gang involvement (Ryan, 2007).

Finally, Michael Shader, a specialist in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice outlined risk factors for youth delinquency and thus gang involvement, including an array of individual, family, school, peer group, and community aspects. She broke down risk factors into early and late onset delinquent activity, with significant overlap in both domains. Some individual risk factors include agression, being male, antisocial attitudes or belifs, low IQ, hyperactivity or difficulty concentrating (in males only) and substance abuse (Shader, 2001). Some family risk factors include low socioeconomic status, anticsocial parents, poor parent-child relationship, abusive or neglectful parents, inconsistent discipline, and "broken home" (Shader, 2001). Finally, peer, school, and community risk factors include poor attitutude and performance in school, antisocial peers, and neighborhood crime, drugs, or disorginazation (Shader, 2001).

Shader documented several protective factors as well including positive social orientation, intolerant attitude toward deviance, high IQ, parental monitoring and warm, supportive relationship with parents, commitment to school, and peers who engage in conventional behavior (Shader, 2001).

Impact on Schools

Burnett and Waltz look at the impact that gangs have on schools, the factors of violence and drugs are addressed at in-depth. We learned from this study that the presence of gangs in schools increases the level of violence, and that both gang members and non-gang members are arming themselves. We also learned that students in schools with a gang presence are twice as likely to report that they are in fear of violence and becoming a victim (1994, para. 7).

The Howell and Lynch article was funded by the U.S. Department of Justice and its authors are both researchers/ professors at federally funded institutions. Many of the citations in this bulletin include earlier research by the same agency, and it’s correlation to this bulletin. This article delves into the raw numbers, statistics on numbers of students involved in gangs, household income of parents of students involved in gangs, and the relationship of gang presence to the amount of drugs available at their school, population of the student body, and crimes at home. Howell and Lynch conducted their research by using surveys of students (2000).
The Howell and Lynch article also looked at why certain schools had a much higher number of gang related activity than others. Howell and Lynch analyzed public and private schools and their demographics, population size, household income, and drug availability. The authors found that the amount of students in a district was directly linked to the number of gang members (2000, section 3). We felt that this article did give us a wealth of statistics on gangs in schools, and included a huge amount of quantitative research, but failed to give much information on the reasons for gang activity, and deterrents to gang activity (2000).

Mayer and Leone researched how school environment affects school violence and gang membership. They found that creating a jail-like atmosphere in schools can actually promote school violence and disorder. They also found that disorder and aggression in schools are usually the result of a small percentage of students. They believe that using long-term, stable consequences is much more effective in dealing with these students. The researchers also argue that prevention of school violence should be a much larger portion of school’s budgets, and that they have seen promising results in schools that allocate more funding towards school security and teacher education.


The journal article written by Burnett and Waltz describes ways that administrators, teachers, community, and parents can effectively combat school gangs. They include education for school staff, creating an inviting climate within the school, programs that can be attended by students and their parents, and targeting students who may be susceptible to gang recruitment and involve them in peer groups (1994, section 5).

The article by Gary and Denise Gottfredson was intended to specifically study the prevention and intervention programs that would combat violence in schools due to gang presence. The research identifies a number of activities that local schools and communities can implement to lesson the prevalence of gangs in schools. Gottfredson and Gottfredson went into detail on the successful and unsuccessful programs currently being implemented in schools in the U.S. today. Many of these programs involve counseling, social work, or psychological intervention. Some involve instruction or training for students, staff, parents, and community members. Some of the programs in place today include behavioral interventions. Gottfredson and Gottfredson also looked at some of the programs that are meant to “indirectly” reduce gang influence in schools, programs that start with school climate, and culture, or programs that start within the community (2001).
Gottfredson and Gottfredson concluded their article by looking at the implications of their research, and the implications of the intervention programs, commenting on success rates, student involvement, and community involvement. The authors of this article feel that many school gang prevention programs that are successful are ones that were based on a formal needs assessment (This simply means that the administrators and board or education recognize the problem, and make changes to fix it.) Interventions and prevention programs that target specific gang members rather than the whole school population were most successful (Gotfredson, et. al., p.6).

Researchers Ramsey, Rust and Sobel evaluated the effectiveness of a new program that has been implemented in schools in Tennessee. The goals of the Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) are to teach students how to set goals for themselves, resist peer pressure, and to resist gang membership. The GREAT program, similar to the Drug & Alcohol Resistance Education (DARE) program of the 90’s, also educates students about how to make better choices and think about consequences for actions. The researchers found that participants in the study had significantly lower rates of drug use and gang membership. The also found that the participants had more friends in school and reported having higher self-esteem. The researchers encourage school districts and administrators to implement the GREAT program to combat the effects of gang membership in schools.

Torok and Trump, two researchers cited in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, discuss one successful intervention strategy implemented by the Cleveland City School District. Torok and Trump stress how gangs “tear at the social fabric of America” and that interventions are not only desirable but necessary. The Cleveland Police Department worked with the public school system to create the “Youth / Gang Unit." This unit is made of school security officers that stay abreast of gang-related activity in school. The program experienced significant success during the brief time period investigated in the study. School violence related to gangs was reduced by 39% within one year (Torok, 1994). While this article stresses that a true intervention initiative would require complete community cooperation and addressing underlying social and economic issues. However, the emphasis on collaboration between school personnel and law enforcement, and combining education efforts with community outreach seems like a successful model that has been widely repeated (Torok, 1994).


Many of the research articles we summarized discussed risk factors for gang involvement. Some of these predictors include: neighborhood crime rate, family structure, parental attitudes, core academic achievement, low attachment to school, low educational aspirations, learning disabilities, delinquent peer groups, tendency to externalize behavior, rejection of conventional beliefs, hyperactivity, and early initiation of drinking.

Several of our research studies stressed that early intervention strategies can be effective. In particular, interventions that target neighborhoods, families or schools especially those individuals with multiple risk factors can be effective. Early intervention at the elementary school level can be successful.

Youth gangs are not only detrimental to the community at large but also within school walls. Factors associated with youth gangs such as truancy, violence and drug proliferation negatively affect school cultures. Members of youth gangs often suffer academically. Many gang members use the school facility to meet and recruit other gang members.


Burnett, G., Waltz, G. (1994). Gangs in the Schools. ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York, N.Y.

Dishion, T. J., Nelson, S. E., & Yasui, M. (2005). Predicting early adolescent gang involvement from middle school adaptation. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34(1), 62-73.

Evans, W. P., Fitzgerald, C., Weigel, D., & Chvilicek S. (1999). Are rural gang members similar to their urban peers? Implications for rural communities. Youth & Society, 30(3), 267-282.

Flores, R.J. (2003). Risk and Protective Factors of Child Delinquency. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice.

Gottfredson, G.D., Gottfredson, D.C. (2001) Gang Problems and Gang Programs in a National Sample of Schools. Gottfredson Associates, Inc. Ellicott City, M.D.

Hill, K.G., Howell, J.C., et al. (1999). Childhood Risk Factors for Adolescent Gang Membership: Results from the Seattle Social Development Project. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 36(3), 300-322.

Howell, J.C., Lynch, J.P. (2000). Youth Gangs in Schools. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Juvenile Justice Bulletin. U.S. Department of Justice Washington, D.C. August, 2000.

Mayer, M. J., Leone, P. E. (1999). A structural analysis of school violence and disruption: Implications for creating safer schools. Education and treatment of children, 22(3), 333-357.

Ramsey, A. L., Rust, J. O., & Sobel, S. M. (2003). Evaluation of the gang resistance and training (GREAT) program: A school-based prevention program. Education 124(2), 297-309.

Ryan, L.G., Miller-Loessi, K. & Nieri, T. (2007). Relationships with adults as predictors of substance use, gang involvement, and threats to safety among disadvantaged urban high-school adolescents. Journal of Community Psychology. 35(8), 1054-1071.

Shader, Michael. (2001). Risk factors for delinquency: An overview. Office of Junvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

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Struyk, R. (2006). Gangs in our schools: Identifying gang indicators in our school population. Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 80(1), 11-13.

Taylor, T. J., Peterson, D., Finn-Aage, E., & Freng, A. (2007). Gang membership as a risk factor for adolescent violent victimization. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 44, 351-380.

Torok, W.C. & Trump, K.S. (1994). Gang Intervention. FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. 63(5), 13-17.

Walker-Barnes, C. (2001) Both Peer and Parent Behaviors Affect Teen Gang Activity. Center for the Advancement of Health, 15(5), 21-29.

Wright, D.R. & Fitzpatrick, K.M. (2006). Violence and Minority Youth: The Effects of Risk and Asset Factors among African American Children and Adolescents. Adolescence. 41(162), 251-262.

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