Given the rapid and steady growth of the Hispanic population in the United States, a major concern becomes the drop out rate of Hispanic children. As Chart 1 shows, their drop out rate of 28.6% is the highest of all four major race/ethnic groups in the United States. This leaves many "Hispanic young adults ill-prepared to compete for skilled or technical jobs in today's economy." (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1996, see "Hispanic Drop Out Rates")
As reported in November, 2000, by the National Center for Educational Statistics:
This brief review of the status of our nation's children in regards to their schooling, and a reminder of the relationship between school failure and delinquency, shall serve as a means of introducing what I learned while visiting schools during my field research.
There are tens of thousands of elementary-, middle-, and high schools in the United States. I visited only a few of them, but they made a significant impression on me regarding gangs. The schools I visited included traditional middle- and high schools as well as alternative middle- and high schools. They were all in cities of from 150,000 to 500,000 residents and were located in or near gang territory. I've chosen a few of the schools to write about below as representative of all the schools I visited.
Park Middle School
Park Middle School is in a rough part of town. The children are primarily Caucasian or African-American. Few Hispanics or Asians have moved into this school's neighborhood as yet.
When drive-by-shootings occur in this city, they are likely to take place in the vicinity of this school. The principal told me "We give students who throw signs, write graffiti, or dress like they are gang members just one warning to change their behavior. The next time we give them a three day suspension. Not one parent has complained about having their child suspended for gang-related behavior, and we have lots of parents who complain when we do it for other reasons. And we have a very high suspension rate. What they do, however, is say 'My child is not in a gang' or in some way deny the situation."
Among other things, I was curious about the nature of the relationship between the Caucasian and African-American students in the school and asked the principal about that. "We have a lot of prejudice here," she said. "That's the reason for some of our suspensions. The 'N' word [nigger] is said much too often and, if a student is caught saying that word he is suspended from school for three days."
The school has two programs for students who are suspended, and about 90% of them participate in either one or the other. Students suspended for ten days or less are sent to an alternative school so few class days are missed. At the alternative school, however, behavior problems demand more staff attention than would be found in a traditional classroom. This limits the amount of time spent on traditional school topics at the alternative school.
If the suspension is for a longer period of time - and it may be for an entire semester - the principal sends the children to a different alternative school, one where they attend classes and have a prolonged treatment program. Both of these alternative schools are in the same facility, but each is run differently.
The principal told me "Only a few kids stay home rather than attend either of those programs. We practically require they attend. And we offer them all a ride to the program and provide them with a bus pass to get back home each day."
I visited a middle school in Kansas City which implemented the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program (G.R.E.A.T.) in the 7th grade classes. Police officers taught the eight one-hour long lessons. I told the principal about the program and she responded saying "Having someone in the classroom who gets all the kids talking about things that might prevent them from getting involved in gangs or gang-like behavior is a good idea. We should be doing that. But you'll have a difficult time getting something like that implemented in this town. We have some members of the School Board who would find that intrusive. They would say that 'The students' parents should be talking to them about those kind of things. That doesn't belong in the school curriculum!'" Her frustration was evident as she raised her voice and slapped the table to punctuate her assessment of the situation. Her level of concern and passion for her students was obvious.
There seems to be a ray of hope at Park Middle School, however, and it comes in the form of a program called Helping Communities. The principal said "It offers students many opportunities for healthy growth, involvement, and is generally seen as a positive force in the life of the students, the school, and the surrounding community. My greatest fear is that the program will not be permanently funded, but will stay under the control of our Democratic governor. And if we get a Republican in next time, he or she may stop the funding. That's a terrible thought. We'd lose a lot of good programming."
Despite her optimism about being able to keep things under control, the principal's closing comment to me was "You should also know that we have parents of 12 and 13 year old children who are themselves only 28 or 30 years old. You can imagine the level of parenting skills they had as a 15 or 17 year old mother or father."
Flores Alternative Middle School has a student body that is mostly Hispanic and is located in a neighborhood which, over the past 20 years, transformed from a poor Caucasian neighborhood to one dominated by Hispanic residents. Like most alternative schools, it's students are those who were removed from traditional schools due to poor academic performance or behavioral problems.
Miguel is Hispanic and serves as the school's primary counselor and social worker. We visited for several hours after taking a tour of the facility. He began to refer to the "gang mentality" as he described the situation in the school and the surrounding community. I asked what he meant by that term and he replied "It's a value system that each gang member holds and shares with fellow gang members. It is in opposition to general society's value system.
"The gang value system supports negative attitudes towards the law and holds in high regard those who violate the law. It supports the belief that the individual is more important than the whole and that, if a given action does not benefit the individual, it is not worth doing. On the other hand, it is ethnocentric [believing one's own culture is the best of all cultures] and sometimes fosters group loyalty. It's the way gang members look at the world - a world view that effects their attitudes and behavior."
Miguel's biggest concern is getting the Hispanic youth at the school out of the gangs to which they belong. "I finally got a chance to talk with some of them," he said, "after I befriended one gang member." Once he won the respect of the gang member, some of the other gang members began to talk to him and shared their concerns.
He learned that many of the gang members were upset because adults in the community would not allow them to use the community gym. The adults were afraid to allow them in the facility because of the way they behaved, dressed, and moved - "They were afraid of them and of the damage they thought they would do to the gym," Miguel said.
He told the gang members he would gain access to the gym for them, and he did. But he told them if they want to use it, there were rules they would have to follow - no fighting, drinking, or selling drugs. They agreed and within two weeks forty-five of them were playing basketball at the gym three or four nights a week.
"Since only ten could play at a time, I started talking with the other ones on the sidelines and in the bleachers. Instead of doing counseling formally, I just listened and offered honest advice," he said. He found the gang members he talked with were listening to him, as were those sitting nearby, "even though they acted like they weren't listening. That told me a lot about my being accepted and their interest in being helped."
In time, Miguel formed a basketball league and, as more youths came to play he noticed the Hispanic girls were beginning to attend as spectators. Sitting on the bleachers, he started the same process of informal counseling with the females. Then he started an all-female volleyball team.
One of the most important insights Miguel offered that day had to do with his perception of gang members - at least the ones he knows. He said "The person we see as a gang member is not the real person. When threatening situations are removed and the real person is allowed to emerge, the gang member may be seen as having the same values, dreams and desires as those of the rest of us in society." There may be some gang members who are, for all intents and purposes, beyond redemption. But there are also some who could be redeemed.
A 19-year veteran of the local police department, herself Hispanic, joined us for part of the interview. She agreed with that statement. "The way they behave around us, sometimes, is because we're police and they have to show they aren't frightened and they're in control. Otherwise they look bad. And when they're around me, being a woman, that's very important. Machismo is everything!"
According to Miguel, within months of implementing the sports teams, the amount of crime and violence in the neighborhood decreased. "Then rival gangs began to attack the gang members," he said "because they saw them as weak." He asked the police department to help by cracking down on the attackers, but the police refused.
Other communities have found police to be helpful in working with the children as well as staff, teachers, and administrators in the schools. One of the most popular programs is called the School Resource Officer program.
Brooks High School
The principal of the school said "Brooks High School has gangs and their presence has been escalating. Our approach to reducing the gang presence relies heavily on three things: a partnership with the police, strict no tolerance rules, and treatment. We've built a partnership between us and the police department. This includes working with the School Crew [a special unit within the juvenile division of the police department]. The School Crew knows how to work with troubled kids and they try to help them and work with their families. They visit problem students in their homes and seek treatment for them in community-based social service agencies whenever appropriate. We also have strict rules and regulations."
At that point the principal handed me a copy of the booklet every student receives when they initially enroll in the school. "It's pocket size," he said, "so they won't lose it!" The booklet is from the city's Board of Education and is entitled Students' Rights and Responsibilities. Students are required to sign for their copy and to have their parents sign in hopes they also will read it.
"And we have a no tolerance policy here regarding guns and drugs," he added. "And all of this has resulted in less gang activity." The no tolerance policy (violators of the school's rules and regulations are punished for every violation) was described as working in conjunction with the police department's Gang Unit. The principal feels "That gang unit is one of the best things that has happened. The Chief (of Police) is keeping the community aware of the problem, putting resources where they are needed, and is helping reduce the gang problem."
In addition to providing enforcement, treatment provided by the liaison School Crew detectives is essential (i.e., visiting with troubled students and their parents, seeking out help in the community).
Regardless of all his efforts, "Gangs are still active in the school," he lamented. "When a student who's in a gang misses even one class (which is a violation of the rules and regulations of the school), it's used like the police use probable cause. We build a case for removing the child from the school. Then we remove him. If we don't practice zero tolerance then none of this will work."
At the end of the interview I asked the principal if he had any other comment he'd like to make. He said "I think the gang problem is due, in part at least, to the fact that we've been soft-shoeing the problem - not being strict or punitive enough in dealing with gang members."
Wilson Alternative High School
According to a Wilson High School brochure, "Wilson's purpose is to support students who have experienced difficulties in the regular school setting, to promote self-esteem, to encourage students to remain in school through graduation, and to prepare them for their fullest participation in our changing society."
While waiting for my appointment to interview the principal I asked for permission to wander about the school. Among other things, I visited several of the classrooms. On the black board of one room were the names of several government offices and a list of topics including home ownership and home loans, creating and managing a personal budget, decision making, family planning, child rearing, and more. The course that is taught in this room is called "Life Skills 101."
Elsewhere was a hallway wall covered with paint-coated images of students' hands. Each student signed his or her name under the impression left by their hands. Hanging in the hallways were huge signs and posters with sayings such as
Think Straight A's!
Attitude, Attendance, Achievement!
Believe, Achieve, Succeed!
You miss school, you miss out!
A visit to the gymnasium revealed the school holds an annual "College and Career Fair" and banners from each year's Fair hung from the rafters displaying a list of names of each year's graduates. Later I was to learn that graduation ceremonies are held each academic quarter rather than each semester due to the unending waiting list of students wanting to enroll.
The halls were lined with racks of brochures dealing with subjects such as sexually transmitted diseases, the consequences of getting involved in alcohol and illegal drugs, and the rights of individuals involved in traffic court cases.
A prominently displayed calendar of events announced birthdays, field trips, an upcoming "Holiday Extravaganza" and an "Art Fest." There are regularly scheduled events each month of the academic year. Posters announcing various special events at area colleges and universities were displayed everywhere mixed with art work created by the students. I saw all of this as symbolic of not only the school administrator's genuine interest in the development of the students, but as a symbol of ownership and pride on the part of the students. There wasn't a piece of trash to be seen anywhere in the school. Not one piece. I looked!
I looked at my watch and the time for my interview was rapidly approaching, so I headed toward the school office. My interview subject was Dr. King, the principal of the school - she's served in that capacity for the past ten years.
Wilson is located in the downtown area of the city in an early 1920's school building. It has new windows, well kept grounds, an intimate atmosphere, and a small student body. With 20 to 80 graduates a year, students receive a great deal of personal attention and are typically known, by name, to each teacher and to the principal. In fact, while I was interviewing her, Dr. King saw a student walking out the front door of the school and called to him by his first name.
He turned around and walked back into her office, head hung low. She asked "Where are you going?" He explained there was an emergency at home. She warned him "I'm going to call your mom while you're on your way just to make sure everything's okay. Okay?" He thanked her and left the room. We both assumed that, under the circumstances, there really must have been an emergency at home.
Dr. King told me she "graduated from high school in the 1960s. Back then, we didn't have nurseries in our community's high schools. So, I was surprised, at least at first, when I saw a classroom in Wilson which had been converted to a sixteen-crib nursery, complete with paid staff, volunteer baby sitters, baby seats, lots of toys, tumbling mats on the floor, and beautiful babies and infants being fed their Gerber's. Things have changed since my time. And without this service, how many of the students at Wilson would have to forego their high school education?"
On the wall in the main hallway outside the nursery, tacked to a cork bulletin board, is a display of baby pictures. I counted 34 pictures containing, in all, the faces of 37 babies and 37 proud mothers, mostly Caucasian. Only one picture showed an adult male or apparent father with the baby.
I asked Dr. King if the display honored and encouraged teen pregnancy and, hence, became a part of the teen pregnancy problem, or if it acted as a caution against getting pregnant. After telling me that "Lots of people have asked that question," and that there are others who have asked to have the material removed from display, Dr. King defended the exhibit noting "We love our students and expect them to love and care for their children. We certainly don't encourage teen pregnancy! That would be silly. But we do encourage our teen mothers to love and care for their children and that's why we have the pictures up there.
"I'm not afraid of these kids. We just gave a year's suspension to a student who was found carrying a knife into our building. I will not tolerate that, regardless of the excuses he gave as to why he had the knife. And we've had only one fight in my eleven years here. Only one case of graffiti. And if you look around, you'll see the building and grounds don't have trash on them.
"These kids (at Wilson) haven't had a reality check yet. They resolve their problems out there using violence and no one gives them a reality check. They have to be willing to listen to us for ideas as to how to manage as an adult. Violence is not an acceptable answer, and they haven't been getting that message." In fact, Dr. King said "Abuse is common in our students' lives."
Hoping to get some clarity as to what kind of abuse they suffer I recited a list of them including sexual, psychological, verbal, physical and neglect. She just looked at me and said "Lots of all the above. We have a significant drug problem here. The most common drug is marijuana." I asked what drug is the second most common and she said it was alcohol. She said methamphetamine, crack, PCP, and LSD are drugs that some students use sometimes. She did not think they used heroin. Wilson has its own drug treatment program, in addition to programs offered in the community.
"Our biggest problem," she said, "is simply getting the students in the school building door. Once we get them in, we can usually keep them and keep them safe." I asked Dr. King about the student she was visiting with before our interview. She told me "She's about seventeen years old and has been sexually abused by her father since she was eight years old. The mother doesn't live at home and the entire family is in denial about that alleged behavior. These are the kinds of things we deal with every day."
She told me about a male student who lives with his mother. His mother's boyfriend was killed in that home. The student had to clean the blood off of the floor after the boyfriend's body was removed. She asked me "What do you think this does to a young boy? We have to work with children who live in a world of violence. And we have students from wealthy area families who are spoiled by their parents. Rather than giving their children a reality check, they fly them to the family resort or to the beach."
An Inner-City Alternative High-School
Mariah Wheeler is a middle-aged Caucasian woman who once lived in the inner city of this community of nearly one-half million people - "Right in the midst of the crime and gangs," she told me. "Now I live on the north side of town. It's relatively free of such things." She is the principal of an alternative high school in the inner-city and occupies an office that is eight feet by six feet - about the size of a prison cell.
The building, at one time a church, was converted to a school several years ago when most of the congregation moved out of the neighborhood. Now the buildings are surrounded by a residential neighborhood filled with a variety of ethnic groups including those that have been in the neighborhood for several years and newly arriving groups including Russians and Somalians.
The school provides free clothing and food to the area's poor, offers technical counseling for newly arrived immigrants, and provides housing placement services for them. The student body is comprised solely of youth who have been thrown out of the city's other high schools.
According to Wheeler, "Most of the Mexican and African-American students are thrown out of public school because of behavior problems, not because of grades or because they have something wrong intellectually. Students are referred here by probation and parole officers, teachers at the other schools, and by parents. Most of the children are from racial and ethnic minority groups including Mexicans, Bosnians, and African-Americans. Only a few Asians and Caucasians attend."
When asked if there was a gang problem in the community, Wheeler hesitated for a moment then said "Yes, there is. There's conflict between gangs from the East side of town and the West side of town, occasional graffiti, and we have to take away books and notebooks from students if they put gang graffiti on them. It's our policy. We also eject known gang affiliates from school."
Wheeler told me the drop out rate for the city's public schools is nearing 40%. I was not surprised. I was surprised the first time I heard about drop out rates when I began my research. Buy by the time I interviewed Wheeler I had been in the field for over a year and the shock had worn off. Given the extent of the gang situation in Wheeler's community, the drop out rate seemed about right.
I inquired about the gang situation in the school. "We have a problem. The problems are 'wannabes' and neighborhood gang members. Gangs are in the school and difficult to get out. It's in their attitude towards studying and school in general. I sometimes have to caution my students who are not in a gang. They dress like gang members as part of the 'Hip Hop culture' but I warn them "Dressed like that you are a target for rival gang members and you might get hurt."
The school is located directly across the street from a neighborhood once known for prostitution. "Prostitutes bodies were being found floating in the river," Wheeler said. The area is now marked for development and Wheeler hopes this will improve the situation around the school.
The newly arrived immigrants living in the neighborhood behind the school have not yet learned to speak English. "Their children speak little English," she said, "but they are learning. But they are not going to school. Instead, they're hanging out in the neighborhood and look like a gang now." She told me she's been hassled by one member of the "gang" who is only eight or nine years old.
When asked about the relationship of her students with the city police she said "It's not good." It gets better for a while when the police come to the school under positive circumstances - like making auditorium presentations. This is good in two ways. The police get to know the students better and have even left saying to me that 'These are good kids!,' and the children get to see the police in a positive setting. That's good. The children look scared when the police first come in, but then it gets better when they see they aren't in trouble. But our black kids don't like the police. They have had bad experiences with them and have told me about some of those experiences."
As to probation and parole officers, Wheeler said "In general, the relationship between them and our students is good. But like anything else, there are good probation and parole officers and bad ones. They are all overworked and have a hard time doing their job as well as they would like."
Gang Recruitment and the Schools
Schools are a prime target for gang recruiters. The more recruits a gang member can bring into his or her gang, the more prestige that gang member has within the gang. The most highly regarded recruiters, according to Curtis Sliwa (from a conversation with him on 12 March 2005), are encouraged by their fellow gang members to continue to do well in school so that they aren't thrown out. After all, it's much more difficult to recruit students into a gang if you're not in school to recruit them! Sliwa should know, he is the founder and President of the Guardian Angels and has working with and against gang members for over 25 years in New York City and other major gang venues.
Children attending schools are a captive audience in that, at least from 5- or 6 years of age to 16 years of age, they are supposed to be there. Where else could a gang recruiter encounter as many youth with so little supervision?
Public and private schools report gang recruitment taking place in the school buildings, on school grounds, and in their immediate vicinity. Recruitment practices include handing out flyers (most common with supremacist and Neo-Nazi gangs), displaying graffiti, verbal communication, and intimidation. Several states have passed anti-gang-recruiting legislation in hopes of reducing such behavior. Oklahoma's legislation provides an example.
According to the well weathered principal of an alternative high school, making an observation on schools throughout the nation, "We need to be proactive now. We've been reactive - reacting to the poverty, the abuse, and those things. It's time to be proactive and prevent these things from happening. Each of these kids have such a full plate. I respect them for the fact they can handle all these things that are happening to them and still get up in the morning and hope for something positive to happen. They really try hard. And I sometimes think they like for me to rag [pick] on them. They need and want the discipline. Look, for lots of these kids their decision-making skills on a good day aren't worth a shit."
In the section of this book entitled Solutions we will review some of the things schools are doing or could do to reduce gang activity and youth violence. For now, I'd like to share with you what I observed in the faith community regarding its response to the gang situation.
Michael K. Carlie