Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 1a:
What Schools Could Do

Field Note: One of the nation's foremost authorities on Hispanic gangs told me "Arrest is not the answer . . . education is."


Schools are a place of learning. In addition to learning about topics in the curriculum, students learn the values of the culture in which they live. In the classroom and on the playground, children learn important social skills through their interaction with teachers and other students. Schools provide an opportunity to emphasize the need for respectful behavior among students, between school personnel and students, and between the school and the neighborhood or community it serves.

When values related to good citizenship and civility are not transmitted - or are only transmitted to a portion of the children, and when important social skills are not developed, problems may arise. A school is a miniature community reflecting the culture of the neighborhood or community in which it is found. Nearly everything that happens in a community - including violence - happens in its schools. For many reasons, schools are uniquely positioned to assist in efforts to reduce youth violence.

Schools may be the best resource for gang prevention. Public schools, especially middle schools, are potentially the best community resource for the prevention of and early intervention into youth gang problems. The peak recruitment period for gang members is probably between the 5th and 8th grade, when youth are doing poorly in class and are in danger of dropping out. Most schools, overwhelmed by other concerns, tend to ignore or deny the problem.
(Spergel et al., 1994, p. 10)

While schools may be a good place to focus our prevention efforts, students only spend about 12% of their time in a formal educational setting during the school year, and this occurs only after up to five years with no time spent in school (from birth to age five). Therefore, while schools may offer formal violence prevention programs, these programs alone cannot provide children with all the education they need on issues involving violence. Parents and community organizations also need to play a role in teaching children about violence, its consequences, and ways to avoid or prevent it.

The following is an outline of the topics we are going to address. As you access them you will find that, starting with Alternative Schools for High-Risk Students, this part of Into the Abyss is on two different Web pages. That was done to make them load more quickly.

Are there Gangs in Your Schools?

A youth gang member is likely to be a youth who has done poorly in school and has little identification with school staff. He does not like school and uses school more for gang-related than academic or social learning purposes. Few schools directly address gang-related problems or factors that precipitate gang membership. (Spergel, et al., 1994, p. 4)

Do any of your local schools have a gang presence? In addition to inquiring about the school-gang connection with your child, local police, juvenile officers, and probation/parole officers, Howell and Lynch (2000) suggest school children be administered a questionnaire at school. An example is provided in a study conducted by Chandler, et al. (1998) as reported in the Howell's and Lynch's article. (2000In addition to asking school children "Are there any street gangs at your school?," Chandler, et al.,  recommend they be asked the following questions if they indicated there were gangs at the school. 

bulletDo the gangs have a name?
bulletIs there a recognized leader? 
bulletDo they have a territory or turf of their own?
bulletHave they tagged or marked turf with graffiti?
bulletHave any of the gang members committed violent acts?
bulletHave you ever seen the gang members spend time hanging around with other members of the gang?
bulletDid they wear clothing or other items to identify their gang membership, or did they have tattoos." (Howell and Lynch, 2000, page)

Among the many possible instruments which could be used to assess whether there is a gang presence in a neighborhood's schools is the Gang Assessment Questionnaire developed by GWC, Training Network, Inc. While some questionnaires are to be completed by students, the one shown below is for teachers and parents.

Gang Assessment Questionnaire 
(for teachers and parents)
This instrument was developed by GWC, Training Network, Inc.
Reproduced here with permission.

If you can answer "yes" to a question about your community or school, give yourself the full point value for that question and write it in the line preceding the word "Yes."

Questions Points Yes No
1. Do you have graffiti on or near your school? 5 pts. ____Yes     No
2. Do you have crossed-out graffiti on or near your school grounds? 10 pts. ____Yes     No
3. Do your students wear colors, jewelry, clothing; flash hand signals; or display other behavior that may be gang related? 10 pts. ____Yes     No
4. Are drugs available in or near your school? 5 pts. ____Yes     No
5. Has there been an increase in physical confrontations or incidents of threats, abuse, or intimidation in or near your school? 5 pts. ____Yes     No
6. Is there an increasing presence of weapons in your community? 10 pts ____Yes     No
7. Do students use beepers, pagers and cellular phones? 10 pts. ____Yes     No
8. Has there been a "drive-by" shooting in your neighborhood? 15 pts. ____Yes     No
9. Have you had a "show-by" or a display of weapons near your schools? 10 pts. ____Yes     No
10. Has there been an increase in the truancy rate and/or daytime burglaries? 5 pts. ____Yes     No
11. Are there an increasing number of "racial" incidents in your community or school? 5 pts. ____Yes     No
12. Does your community have a history of gangs? 10 pts. ____Yes     No
13. Is there an increasing presence of informal social groups with unusual names? 15 pts. ____Yes     No

Total Points (See interpretation below)




What your "Total Points" Mean....

0-15 points No significant gang problem.
20-40 points Emerging gang problem.
45-60 points Need to immediately establish a comprehensive, systematic gang prevention and intervention plan.
65+ points Acute gang problem that merits a total gang prevention, intervention and suppression program.

Chandler, et al., as reported in Howell Lynch (2000), found "the students' use of various gang indicators was compared with their reports of the degree of gang involvement in criminal activities at school. To measure gang involvement in criminal activities, a gang crime scale was created based on student answers to the following three questions:

bulletHow often have street gangs been involved in fights, attacks, or violence at your school in the past 6 months?

bulletHave street gangs been involved in the sale of drugs at your school in the past 6 months?

bulletHave any street gang members brought guns to your school in the past 6 months?" (Howell and Lynch, 2000, page)

As Chandler, et al., (1998) found, "The percent of students reporting street gang presence at school nearly doubled between 1989 and 1995, increasing from 15.3 percent to 28.4 percent. The overall level of victimization in schools in 1995, 14.6 percent, was similar to that in 1989, 14.5 percent. There was an increase in the percentage of students reporting violent victimizations, however, increasing from 3.4 percent to 4.2 percent." 

The proportion of children who join a gang varies by neighborhood. Generally speaking, however, most children never join a gang. This belies the impact of gangs on schools where they present significant problems ranging from disruption in the class room to assaults on school personnel and other students and significant property damage.

Despite their high profile in the media, relatively few young people join gangs; even in highly impacted areas, the degree of participation has rarely exceeded 10 percent. In addition, it has been reported that less than 2 percent of all juvenile crime is gang-related (Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993). 

Such low numbers, however, may camouflage the impact that the presence of gangs has on a school. For one thing, they play a significant role in the widespread increase of violence in the schools. Because gangs are, by definition, organized groups, and are often actively involved in drug and weapons trafficking, their mere presence in school can increase tensions there. (Burnett and Walz, 1994)

There are many steps which can be taken to reduce the presence of gangs in schools and to decrease their level of criminal activity.


One of my primary concerns has to do with school truancy. I observed school systems in which truant students were ignored. In some instances, when students were excessively truant, their names were simply taken off the class role. In most cities truant children were unmanaged. That is, truant officers were either too busy or unconcerned and did not have sufficient contact with children who were truant.

Truancy rates, as well as drop out rates, have reached disturbingly high levels in some inner-city neighborhoods. What I witnessed were neighborhood schools experiencing drop out rates as high as 25-40%. There is a high correlation between the location of those schools and the location of gangs and gang activity in a neighborhood.

The following, beginning with truancy, are some of the potential solutions for reducing gang activity and youth violence which could be implemented by school personnel or by school personnel in conjunction with parents and other social institutions in the neighborhood/community.


bullet Truancy Prevention
More than 700 participants attended a national conference on truancy held in Washington, DC, on December 6–8, 2004. "Partnering To Prevent Truancy: A National Priority" was cosponsored by the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education.

Recognizing that truancy is a complex problem and that focusing on attendance alone is not enough, the conference organizers highlighted efforts to address the "three A's"—school Attendance, Attachment, and Achievement.

bulletReduce truancy: 
The Manual to Combat Truancy offers sound advise on how to reduce truancy. "Research data tells us that students who become truant and eventually drop out of school put themselves at a long term disadvantage in becoming productive citizens. High school dropouts, for example, are two and a half times more likely to be on welfare than high school graduates. In 1995, high school dropouts were almost twice as likely to be unemployed as high school graduates. In addition, high school dropouts who are employed earn much lower salaries. Students who become truant and eventually drop out of high school too often set themselves up for a life of struggle."

You can learn much more about the truancy issue by reading Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School and If an Adolescent Begins To Fail in School, What Can Parents and Teachers Do?.


Consider the Attendance Promotes Excellence (APEX) program:
The APEX program reduced truancy and received support from a variety of sources within the community. It involves short visits by school personnel to the homes of students who have not been attending school. 

Through an elaborate system of encouragement and rewards, the program provides real incentives for kids to be in school. Designed with community involvement in mind, APEX flyers and posters went up in local businesses, and sponsors financed the purchase of incentives for students who earn them.

Unfortunately, the site for this program was taken off the web as of 9-4-2008. Perhaps the description above, however, can give you some ideas for a program your community might implement.

Reducing truancy is not the only solution to consider. What follows is information on such solutions as parental notification letters, after-school-hours programs, alternative schools for high-risk youth, in-school programs - particularly those which reduce violence in the school (one by-product of a possible gang presence), and solutions related to coping with crises. We'll conclude with a review of Spergel's and Alexander's school-based model for gang prevention and intervention. (Spergel and Alexander, 1993)

Parental Notification

Gang activity flourishes because of denial by parents, communities, school districts and law enforcement until ... a tragedy occurs! (GWC, Inc., page)


Utilize parental notification letters: 
In many schools, administrators send a Parental Notification Letter to inform parents that their child meets certain criteria which suggest poor attendance or violent or other disruptive behaviors such as gang association or membership. 

Criteria for gang affiliation includes such indicators as associating with known gang members, wearing tattoos or gang-style clothing/jewelry, throwing hand signs, and putting up graffiti.

The letter typically emphasizes the importance of immediate intervention and suggests what some of those interventions may be. Police officers are sometimes used to deliver these letters in order to drive home the point that the matter is serious. A follow-up letter or contact by telephone or in person may assist parents who need help in modifying their child's behavior.

After-Hours and Beyond

bulletUsing school facilities after-hours: 
The use of volunteers to supervise activities relieves teachers of this additional burden on their time and energy and involves others in the neighborhood with the neighborhood's youth. You can seek out volunteers from neighboring faith institutions or servicing-learning and intern students from area colleges.

After-school sports programs are of particular value in keeping both boys and girls off the streets and involved in supervised, healthy social activity.


Implementing after-school programs: 
The peak hours for violent juvenile crime are from 3:00-8:00 p.m.. Nearly one-half of all violent juvenile crime occurs between the hours of 2:00-8:00 p.m.. Two thirds of it takes place between 2:00- 11:00 p.m.. According to Fox and Newman
(1997), what we need are for our schools to offer after-hours programs which provide a safe haven for kids, constructive recreation programs, community service activities, and academic programs during those peak hours.

In Beyond After-School you'll find examples of how three communities developed Community Learning Centers in their local schools and what those Centers provide area children and their parents.

(What Schools Could Do, Continued)

© 2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.