School Failure and Delinquency
Why Youths Join
to school failure and low self-esteem.
to school and
Explanations in Brief:
academic performance for some children may lead to low self-esteem which
may lead to truancy and dropping out of school. This, in
turn, may lead to the formation of a gang to regain a sense of
2. Some neighborhood schools are failing in their effort to educate and
socialize students which may result in a child's rejection of
school and the formation of a gang as a mechanism for filling time,
acting out against the school, acquiring skills needed to make
money, and building self-esteem.
School failure and delinquency are the result of another issue
behavior syndrome (low IQ - Intelligence Quotient, turbulent family
life, low self-control and impulsivity, drug use, depression,
malnutrition, abuse, and disease).
and Senna, 1997, p. 365, italics added for clarity) Gangs
may form when children with this syndrome are brought together or seek one
another out as a support group.
The tri-city area of
Pharr-Alamo-San Juan, Texas, has 5,000 gang members (about one-fourth
of the student body) attending the district's schools. It is an area
of high drug use and drug trafficking within 44 neighborhoods ("colonias")
characterized by high unemployment, few job opportunities, and substandard
housing that is often without indoor plumbing. Children who are most at
risk often come from families involved in drug use and/or trafficking and
frequently have been sexually abused. (Office
of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency, 1999, page,
italics added for emphasis)
This part of Into the Abyss and the next section both
deal with self-esteem. In order for our discussion about school failure to make sense
we need to have a shared understanding of what self-esteem is and how
it develops in an individual. "Esteem" refers to the regard in which someone is
held by others. If they are held in "high" esteem, they are thought of
positively. People who have high self-esteem regard themselves as
good people - they are satisfied with themselves, confident. They have a
sense of self-worth and self-competence. People with low self-esteem think poorly of themselves.
Some children are able to build high self-esteem at
home. Their parents or guardians reward them for positive behaviors thus fostering the
development of high self-esteem. These are children who are proud of what
they do and who feel good about themselves. Other children are struggling at home. They are abused,
neglected, and generally made to feel as though they are worthless. These
children are likely to develop low self-esteem and will feel badly about
themselves. They also have a propensity to feel negatively towards others.
|Field Note: Standing
in the checkout line at the grocery store everyone heard a mother
yell at her child saying "Put that damn candy bar down! How
many times have I told you to keep your hands off that stuff? You
little shit! I'm sorry I ever had you!"
Schools are also a social institution in which a child may
develop either high- or low self-esteem. When children succeed at school -
earn good grades, are respected by their teachers - they may develop high
self-esteem. When children fail in school - when teachers punish or ridicule
them - they are likely to develop a low level of self-esteem.
of juvenile female offenders reflected repeated failure, unrealistic
ideations about how well academic skills were being performed, a high
percentage of students needing special education, and unsatisfactory past
relationships with teachers. (Fejes-Mendoza,
et al., 1995, p 315)
The jury is out on whether there is a direct relationship
between low self-esteem and the risk of becoming a gang member. (Thornberry,
2001, p. 36) However, a persistent correlation has been found to
exist between poor academic performance and delinquency. There are at least three explanations for
One suggests that a student's poor academic performance
eventually leads to delinquency. Another suggests that it is the schools which are failing,
thus producing children who are ill-equipped for the future and who may
become involved in delinquency as a means of compensating for their
deficiencies. The last explanation suggests school failure and delinquency are each caused by
a third factor- problem behavior syndrome - and, therefore, neither poor academic
performance nor failing schools are to blame for a child's delinquency.
As you read about these various notions, perhaps you will
agree that, while none have been proven
to lead directly to the formation of gangs, each is suggestive in its own way.
The Impact of Poor Academic Performance
For some children, poor academic performance at school may lead to low self-esteem.
and Spergel, 1992; Schwartz,
1989) This, in turn,
may lead to truancy and dropping out. As I witnessed over the past
three years, some children who are truant socialize with other truant
children and social groups begin to form. While the likelihood of the group
becoming a gang is uncertain, the potential is there.
A gang may form in order for its members to gain a sense of
self-esteem vis a vis their role and activities in the gang. Within
the gang students will also find alibis for their truancy, other children to
socialize with, and a venue for venting any humiliation, frustration, or
anger they may feel as a result of their failures in the school setting.
Thornberry tells us "Bowker and Klein (1983)
have reported that students who have low educational expectations are at
increased risk for gang membership." He also notes that "Gang
membership is also more likely among adolescents whose parents have low
educational expectations for them (Schwartz,
1989). Poor school performance and low commitment and involvement are
also correlated with gang membership (Le
Blanc and Lanctot, in press)."
Poor school performance is known to be a strong predictor of
involvement in crime. Children with lower academic performance are more
likely to offend, more likely to offend frequently, more likely to commit
more serious offences and more likely to persist in crime. (Maguin
and Loeber, 1996) These relationships can be found even
when socioeconomic status and prior conduct problems have been controlled.
Lower-Class Students in
Mention of "frustration" regarding the school
experience brings us to the work of Albert Cohen. Cohen is famous in the
field of criminology for his contribution regarding the potential impact of
the school experience on students from the lower socio-economic classes. In
a nutshell, here's what he
has to say.
School personnel - administrators, teachers, counselors -
are from the middle-class. Some, or all, of the students at a given school
may be from the lower socio-economic classes. Cohen believes school personnel
evaluate each student using their own middle-class
measuring rod. The middle-class values against which all students, including
poor ones, are measured include
|ambition as a virtue;|
|an emphasis on the middle-class ethic of
|valuing the cultivation of skills and tangible
|postponement of immediate satisfactions and
self-indulgence in the interest of achieving long-term goals;|
|rationality, in the sense of forethought,
planning, and budgeting of time;|
|the rational cultivation of manners, courtesy
|the need to control physical aggression and
|the need for wholesome recreation; and|
|respect for property and its proper care.
According to Cohen, some lower-class children fail to
measure up to the middle-class values and feel
frustrated as a result of their inability to measure up to the school's
expectations. He believes some of these frustrated children will act out by
turning the middle-class values upside down.
In a "reaction-formation" to
this problem, these youths use the gang as a means of adjustment. In the
gang such youths act out their status frustrations in
"non-utilitarian, malicious, negativistic" forms of
1997, p. 170)
By acting out he suggests that courtesy becomes rudeness. Respect for property become
vandalism. The need to control aggression becomes fighting, and so on. Of
course such behavior is defined as delinquent so those who violate the
middle-class standards are deviants, delinquents. Children who behave
inappropriately are grouped together - in the principle's office, in detention,
and in treatment programs.
The informal association which takes place between them in
those settings may
lead to gang formation as their relationships with each other mature. As Cohen
indicated, "The gang provides a legitimate 'opportunity structure' for
working-class boys to strike back at a larger society that produces their
status-frustration problems." (Yablonsky,
1997, p. 171)
Truancy and Dropping Out of
Let's shift the topic a little now and take a look at
truancy and dropping out of school as they impact a child's behavior. There is a substantial body of literature which shows
"... the evidence is clear that poor school performance, truancy, and
leaving school at a young age are connected to juvenile delinquency." (National
Academy Press, 2000, page)
They are connected, or correlated. It hasn't been proven that
one causes the other but the two appear together consistently.
Truancy may be the beginning of a
lifetime of problems for students who routinely skip school. Because these
students fall behind in their school work, many drop out of school.
Dropping out is easier than catching up.
Truant students are at
higher risk of being drawn into behavior involving drugs, alcohol, or
violence. A California deputy assistant attorney who handles truancy cases
says he has never seen a gang member who wasn't a truant first. (Garry,
1996, p. 1)
Precise national data on the number of school children and
dropouts who are members of gangs is very difficult, if not impossible, to
obtain. There are isolated studies, among them a recent study in Chicago
which found "... 5 percent of elementary school children were
affiliated with street gangs, as were 35 percent of high school
et al, 1997, page)
Present-day statistics alert us to the fact that there is a
significant problem related to dropping out, and it impacts certain ethnic
and racial groups differently. Hispanic Americans appear to be most at risk
of dropping out and, as we learned earlier,
they represent the largest single ethnic group of gang members in the United
States today. The following are among the most recent and significant
findings regarding the drop out phenomenon.
|Students in large cities are twice as likely
to leave school before graduating than non-urban youth. |
|More than one in four Hispanic youth drop
out, and nearly half leave by the eighth grade.|
|Hispanics are twice as likely as African
Americans to drop out. |
|White and Asian American students are least
likely to drop out. |
|More than half the students who drop out
leave by the tenth grade, 20% quit by the eighth grade, and 3%
drop out by the fourth grade.|
|Dropouts make up nearly half the heads of
households on welfare.|
|Dropouts make up nearly half the prison
Adolescent Services, 2000 , page)|
Student nonattendance is a
problem that extends much further than the school. It affects the
student, the family, and the community.
The Los Angeles County Office of
Education identifies truancy as the most powerful predictor of delinquency.
Police departments across the nation report that many students not in
school during regular hours are committing crimes, including vandalism,
shoplifting, and graffiti. When Van Nuys, California, officials
conducted a three-week sweep for truants on the streets, shoplifting
arrests dropped by 60 percent.
Absenteeism is detrimental to students'
achievement, promotion, graduation, self-esteem, and employment potential.
Clearly, students who miss school fall behind their peers in the
classroom. This, in turn, leads to low self-esteem and increases the
likelihood that at-risk students will drop out of school.
According to researcher Wendy Schwartz, here are many
reasons why a student may drop out of school.
like school in general or the school they were attending.
failing, getting poor grades, or couldn't keep up with school work.
get along with teachers and/or students.
problems, were suspended, or expelled.
job, had a family to support, or had trouble managing both school
married, got pregnant, or became a parent.
Had a drug
Poor academic performance may result in truancy and
dropping out of school. If this happens, it is likely to cripple a student's future as
he or she find they are unemployable in a job market which requires a
high level of literacy in order to compete successfully. For a variety of
reasons we've already discussed, poor academic performance may
lead to the formation of youth gangs.
The second explanation for student failure in school has
to do with the quality of the school itself.
The Impact of Failing Schools
Few issues in education
are of greater concern to policymakers, educators, and the general public
than the plight of ethnic and racial minority students in the nation's urban
schools. To be sure, many of
these young people receive high-quality educations, achieve at admirable
levels, and complete high school equipped with the knowledge and skills
needed for further education or entry-level employment.
An alarming number of
these students, however, achieve at significantly lower levels than their
white counterparts and leave school--either through dropping out early or at
graduation--lacking the skills and knowledge required by employers,
colleges, and trade schools. (Cotton,
1991, p. 1)
Most street gang members live in
impoverished conditions. The neighborhoods in which they live are
characterized by neglect at all levels - including neglect by their city
aspect of that neglect is reflected in the condition of many inner-city schools.
Worn down, neglected, denied regular maintenance, the
physical plant itself is neglected. Neglected, too, are the school libraries, desks, and the teachers. The teachers are
overworked and faced with too few resources to do the job they were hired to
do and would like to do if conditions were better.
There is much evidence
to indicate that problems relating to the public schools are concentrated
in the inner cities of our urban areas and in poor rural areas. It is not unusual for
[inner-city] schools to be housed in old, dilapidated buildings and to be
staffed by a higher proportion of teachers who are new or lack proper
credentials. In addition, teachers in these schools are likely to be short
of books and other teaching materials.
Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, 1998, p. 1)
Some teachers are not qualified to be
teachers. In his study of school students, Kite found that "of seven major factors contributing to school
dropouts, four of the factors were related to self-esteem, feeling that
they lack the intelligence or the ability to succeed in school ... they also suffered from low self-esteem, reinforced consciously or
unconsciously by parents or teachers." (Kite,
Further complicating matters is the fact that immigration and migration have resulted in
creating a diverse
population of students in many of our inner-city schools. How well prepared
are the schools to deal with this diversity and the conflict which nearly
always accompanies it? How well prepared are the students? Research has
shown that some students are stigmatized by teachers and school
administrators because of their differences, which make the educational experience at school even more
difficult for the affected student.
Educational environments that are
responsive to human diversity treat differences among students as
strengths that can be built upon or as needs that must be accommodated.
Unresponsive and ineffective systems of delivery ignore individual
differences or, even worse, treat student differences in a stigmatizing
manner that reduces learning opportunities. (Wang
et al., 1997,
Have you heard of social promotion? It is an
unwritten policy wherein teachers allow students performing at substandard
levels to promote into the next grade at school along with the children who
performed well. In effect, they are consigning these socially promoted
children to a questionable future.
I understand why such promotions take place - teacher
frustration and/or fear of the consequences of holding a child back for
another year and/or the desire to keep students with other students of his
or her age. But there are consequences for the children who are socially
promoted. They are not prepared for the next year in school and are more
likely to experience failure or other frustrations.
The situation at home is just as problematic for some
inner-city children. Their parents are far
from helpful. They detract from their child's school performance by
discouraging attendance (so the parent can use the child to do something
else - shopping, stealing, taking care of the parent), failing to tutor the
child, and hindering teachers' efforts to help the child.
School Failure and Delinquency are the Result of a Third Factor: The
Problem Behavior Syndrome
It is possible that both school failure and delinquency are caused by a
third factor - the problem behavior syndrome.
and Senna, 1997, p. 365). If this is the case, then
our attention needs to turn to the causes of the problem behavior syndrome and
an understanding of whether the syndrome leads to gang formation or not.
Despite a serious and growing gang situation in the United States, the vast majority of
American youth - regardless of their age, social
class, gender, race, or ethnicity - are good kids. The resilience of the most
impoverished, least educated, and most discriminated against children is a
marvel. We need to learn more about how these children have managed to develop
and maintain their high level of self-esteem in the face of such
Poverty exposes children to a range of
environmental hazards and is an effective marker for negative child
developmental outcomes. However, there are substantial individual
differences among poor children in their resilience and vulnerability to
the same risk - poverty. More research is needed to understand individual
differences of children in response to the contexts of poverty. (Chung,
Failing at school, for whatever reason, presents children and
adolescents with a significant challenge. Illiteracy, a lack of exposure to positive roles models in the
school (peers and teachers alike), and the frustrations which follow in the
wake of academic failure lay the foundation for powerlessness and a loss of
hope. The challenge for these children is to stay out of trouble, and to keep from associating
with other children who are in a similar predicament. I think there are too
many youth who have failed this challenge and, in their desperation, have
come together and developed into gangs.
School failure is but one of many explanations for the formation of
gangs. A lack of self-esteem, or never having been confident or satisfied
with one's self may also be contributing to the formation of gangs.
Resources: You can read about what some other researchers found out
relationship between poverty, crime and self-esteem.
You can learn
more about students who drop out of school or explore examples
of state laws and local ordinances against truancy.
Learn more about various state and local
codes as regards truancy,
responsibility. There's an interesting article on the Web about
impact of enforcement of curfew and truancy laws on gang-related crime.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention has an excellent publication entitled Youth
Gangs in Schools.
Focus Adolescent Services has a
useful Web site for those who have a teen who gets into trouble with the law.
Michael K. Carlie
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writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.