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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
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

Topic 6:
School Failure and Delinquency

Why Gangs Form What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due 
to school failure and low self-esteem.
An alternative
to school and 
high self-esteem.
Out of their frustration 
with school.

Explanations in Brief:

1. Poor 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 self-esteem.

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.

3. School failure and delinquency are the result of another issue -  problem behavior syndrome (low IQ - Intelligence Quotient, turbulent family life, low self-control and impulsivity, drug use, depression, malnutrition, abuse, and disease). (Siegel 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.

Educational histories 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 this correlation. 

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. (Curry 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. (ibid, p. 248)

Lower-Class Students in Middle-Class Schools

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

bulletambition as a virtue;

bulletan emphasis on the middle-class ethic of responsibility;

bulletvaluing the cultivation of skills and tangible achievement;

bulletpostponement of immediate satisfactions and self-indulgence in the interest of achieving long-term goals;

bulletrationality, in the sense of forethought, planning, and budgeting of time;

bulletthe rational cultivation of manners, courtesy and personality;

bulletthe need to control physical aggression and violence;

bulletthe need for wholesome recreation; and

bulletrespect for property and its proper care. (Cohen, 1955)

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 delinquency." (Yablonsky, 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 School

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 dropouts." (Sheldon, 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.

bulletStudents in large cities are twice as likely to leave school before graduating than non-urban youth. 

bulletMore than one in four Hispanic youth drop out, and nearly half leave by the eighth grade.

bulletHispanics are twice as likely as African Americans to drop out. 

bulletWhite and Asian American students are least likely to drop out. 

bulletMore 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.

bulletDropouts make up nearly half the heads of households on welfare.

bulletDropouts make up nearly half the prison population. (Focus 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.  (ibid.)

According to researcher Wendy Schwartz, here are many reasons why a student may drop out of school.


Didn't like school in general or the school they were attending.


Were failing, getting poor grades, or couldn't keep up with school work.


Didn't get along with teachers and/or students.


Had disciplinary problems, were suspended, or expelled.


Didn't feel safe in school.


Got a job, had a family to support, or had trouble managing both school and work.


Got married, got pregnant, or became a parent.


Had a drug or alcohol problem. (ibid.)

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 governments. One 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. (Phi 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, 1989)

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, page)

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. (Siegel 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 overwhelming obstacles.

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, no date)

In Closing

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.


Additional Resources: You can read about what some other researchers found out about the 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, curfews, and parental responsibility. There's an interesting article on the Web about the 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

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.