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Role of School in the Street Gang Involvement


There has been an increasing interest among scholars from different spheres of science, including the studies of social welfare, law enforcement, education, public health, and psychology with the attempt to explain the reasons of youth being involved into different street gangs. They have carried out a number of studies using a range of quantitative and qualitative approaches and methods (Wood & Alleyne, 2010). The research has been mostly focused on the verification of different gang formation theories.

Scholars have been trying to identify what are the risk factors for a young person to be involved into the gang showing the gangs’ structure and its experience, as well as estimating the programs’ effect designed to eliminate gangs and the involvement of youth in the gangs’ formations. The results of these studies describe sophisticated relations between the characteristics that explain behavior and gang membership. Even though the gang involvement into the gangs’ membership is usually common for the people in the mid-adolescent age, the considerable risk factors that are present at the earlier age may be viewed as the milestones for the probability of decision to join or not to join a gang during the mid-adolescent age (Howell & Egley, 2005).


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At the every period of life, there is always a chance to eliminate those risk factors of the gang involvement as well as an opportunity to direct a child to the more pro-social lifestyle. However, there was not much research done in any sphere to uncover the role of school in the gang involvement process as the prior studies had been majorly focused on the youth, its interaction within the families, as well as its own community context. Moreover, even though some influential longitudinal studies have researched predictors of the gang participation, e.g. the Pittsburgh Youth Study (Lahey et Al., 1999), none of them focused on the role of school in this process.

After entering the school, educational factors have the considerable impact on the development of youth. Even though the majority of risk factors that are associated with the gang involvement usually are not effortlessly adaptable, for example, the social disorganization, poverty, exposure to deprived neighborhoods, where criminal activities and habits are usually obtained by youth and approved, though the poor family interactions, education and school factors can be altered and affected also. They are within the framework of control of professionals that are trained to encourage the learning and appropriate social behavior among young people.

The gang involving risk factors associated with school, for example, the relationships with teachers, as well as discipline policies, do not only have the impact on the students’ participation, they may also have the considerable effect on the variety of outcomes unlike some individual characteristics of students.

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Therefore, it is essential to understand the framework of the system, e.g., the school system and the system of justice in order to identify the role in the gang involvement and youth development (Sander et Al., 2010).

This paper suggests the extensive literature review about the gang involvement among youth and distinguishes what the role of school in this process is. Discussing the application of various gang involvement theories in the research, the reasons of the youth’s gang participation are examined. Reviewing the research findings of risk factors associated with the gang participation, the paper provides a policy framework for the gang control with the help of the educational system.


Over the last few decades gangs have spread their location from the inner-city urban ghettos to the suburban areas as well as the upper class neighborhoods across the territory of the United States. Even though the overall gang involvement has decreased in the end of the 1990s, the share of crimes and the problems associated with gangs at the national level has continued increasing since 2001 (Egley, Howell, Moore & March, 2010). The most recent National Youth Gang Survey has uncovered that there had been the 15% increase in the gang activities in 2008 compared to 2002. Approximately 27,900 active gangs were registered in the United States with their 774,000 gang members. In the same year, approximately 32.4% of all urban cities’ communities as well as of rural towns have been experiencing gang problems (Egley, Howell, Moore & March, 2010).

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Recently, gangs have increased their impact from the simple urban challenge to the level of a vast social phenomenon. Gangs are spread all over the United States; and their members are actively involved into violence as well as other criminal actions that are socially harmful (Gilbertson, 2009). Therefore, there is a need for the social institutions that have the access to the at-risk youth; for example, schools should play a considerable role in the promotion of the socially accepted behavior rather than in the prevention of delinquent pathways that ultimately being as the results in the gang involvement.

Moreover, there is the evidence that the majority of gang members start their gang membership while being young. At the national level, around 12% of Blacks and Latinos, and 7% of Whites report that they are either currently involved in the gang activities or have been involved in it in the past being by the age of 17 while the majority of gang members get involved when they are around 12-15 years old. However, the majority of gangs has a grown up leader and focuses on their delinquent activities within a single geographical area; they also primarily consist of one ethnic or racial group (Knox, 1994).

Outcomes and consequences of the gang involvement are rather obvious and undoubtedly negative. According to the mass media, gangs are usually responsible for the latest increase in the drug sale, youth crime, as well as violence. “Mass media confirms juvenile acts and the stereotypes held by law enforcement officers as well as public  that gang members are vicious, selfish and unscrupulous juveniles — that they have no goals in life but destruction of social norms in order to increase their personal gain” (Sirpal, 1997). Even though mass media has a tendency to exaggerate the problem about the role of gangs in the crime increase, there is the evidence in the research that the majority of gang activities verify the extreme behavior while agreeing that the gang problem is mostly social and not individual.

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Theoretical Framework of Gang Involvement

At present, there is the limited evidence and a small number of studies that examine gang behavior in the risk and flexibility framework. Traditionally, most studies have been focused on the factors that have the impact on the increase of the individual susceptibility to negative consequences. This approach had been most commonly used in the studies of the delinquent behavior. The risk factors investigated in studies have been found to possess with the cumulative features, with every extra risk factor increasing the chances of a negative consequence in the exponential relationship.

Likewise in other studies of problematic behavior, the studies of the gang participation had primarily focused on the risk factors associated with joining a gang and which  corresponding negative consequences it could have. In particular, according to the Seattle Study (Hill, Howell, Hawkins & Battin-Pearson, 1999), a set of risk factors observed at the age from 10 to 12, including the family, individual, community, peer, and school associated risk factors, have forecasted the gang participation before reaching 13 to 18 years. More precisely, young people, which possessed with 7 or more risk factors from the above mentioned categories had considerably more chances of joining the gang compared to other children, which had only 1 indicator of risk. However, all studies did not take into account the “protective” side factors irrespectively of the evidence that there was always a share in the community being successfully functioning in spite of any environmental challenge and risk factors (Garmezy, 1993). The “protective” factors encourage this “flexibility.” Therefore, it has been documented that accepting the outcomes, i.e., the gang involvement, should include both “protective” factors and the study of risk factors.

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Similarly to the studies of any social issue, the study of gangs involves the analysis of the protective and risk factors that bring some negative consequences under study, along with the protective and risk influences of the specific concern. Regarding the gang participation, there is no consensus about the developmental and social consequences for the youth which has become as the participant of gangs. Even though the gang participation brings a lot of negative consequences, including the drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, injuries, as well as death, at the same time, gangs may also exercise the protective power to those becoming its members. Therefore, it is mainly important to consider the risk and flexibility framework in order to understand and ultimately prevent the further gang participation.

The studies in the risk and flexibility framework are mostly paying attention to the broader sphere of violent behavior and delinquency. Even though the gang involvement and violent behavior are supposed to be highly correlated, the results of the gang behavior study are not generalized from the obtained results. The study of the structure of gang membership must be separated into separate studies of various gang’s problematic behaviors associated with the criminal behavior; e.g., the substance use, gang involvement, and unprotected sexual intercourse, as the latter ones are determined by different outlines of risk and flexibility factors (Stoiber & Good, 1998). The examination of various theories of gang participation along with the study of protective and risk factors that have been found in the current literature would enable the development of  gang prevention methods at the school level.

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Strain Theory

Strain theory is considered to be one of the most commonly applied theories to study the gang participation. The proponents of this theory argue that people living in poverty often experience strain as a result of their inability to reach the decent and desirable level of financial security. A lot of individuals develop the feeling of constant despair that they will not be able to obtain the prosperity with the help of conventional employment ways. As a result, they turn into the more profitable criminal behavior, including robbery and drug sales in order to reach the instant satisfaction. Hence, gangs offer people the perfect leadership and create some opportunities to maximize their criminal success. In the framework of the strain theory, there are a lot of community risk factors associated with the gang involvement, including the social disorganization, poverty, the organized lower and underclass communities, the residential mobility, and all those barriers that lack economic and social opportunities.

In order to apply the strain theory, there is the research made by Brownfield, Thompson, and Sorenson (1997), which have analyzed the data from two self-reported studies: the Seattle Youth Study involving more than 1600 young people with an oversampling of those individuals having a juvenile justice record, and the Youth Data Set including the interviews with young people in the custody across the country. The researchers have established several measures to estimate the application of strain theory; e.g., an index describing the incongruity between the educational aspiration and financial ambition based on the high responses to such questions as, “I want to make lots of money”, and also on the low response rates to the question as, “How much schooling do you expect to get?” (p. 13). The study results have indicated that there is a difference between the financial aims and existing educational means in order to achieve the aims being prophetic to the gang participation and, in the meantime, supporting the application of strain theory.

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Social Learning Theory

The proponents of the social learning theory consider that people expose their behavior according to the certain role models. Family members are considered to be the most influential role models in the social learning theory. As a result, people tend to be involved into some activities and become the members of groups reinforcing the recognizable behavior, for example, the differential association. In such cases when young individuals are involved into something with their peers supporting criminal behavior, as well as that have the weak social bonds with those endorsing the conservative activities, then, as a result, according to the social learning theory, those individuals are likely to be involved in the gang life as well.

In the framework of the social learning theory, different types of risk factors can explain the gang participation of young individuals. In particular, in the study of Howell (1998), the family related characteristics were associated with the gang involvement. Among the considered family level characteristics   impacting on the gang involvement there were the parental drugs and/ or alcohol abuse, poor living conditions, the lack of male role models in the families or, in the whole, the lack of parental role models, economic deprivation, low social status, as well as the antisocial behavior of siblings. During the teenage period of life, peer groups start being more influential. In the study, Howell has identified that there is a significant statistical relationship between the gang involvement and the low commitment into positive peers, the availability of gang members in class, the street socialization, having friends that take drugs and/ or being gang members, at the same time, and as well having the friends that are drug dealers.

Therefore, the studies that have applied social learning theory in the empirical research and have confirmed that there is the consistent evidence how the gang involvement is substantially affected by the peers’ behavior.

Self-Control Theory

The theory of self-control describes that adolescents that lack their own self-control in the future will be more liberal to the peer criminal behavior. Therefore, there is a bigger chance for them to join the gang activities themselves. According to the self-control theory, the measures of self-control include the persistence, delay of gratification, caution, verbosity, tendency to be cognitive, engagement into long-term pursuits, sensitivity to others, and valuing academic skills. Among the specific risk factors at the individual level that indicate  the self-control difficulties being also associated with the gang involvement there are the previous delinquency experience being street smart, deviant attitudes and the individualistic and defiant character of being aggressive and having a fatalistic view on the world, the illegal gun ownership or having some social disabilities, also the early sexual activity and the desire for social group rewards such as: the identity, status, companionship, self-esteem, protection, alcohol and drug abuse, hyperactivity, the problem behavior demonstration, externalizing behaviors, the lack of refusal skills, and, finally, the victimization (Howell, 1998).

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Role of School

There is the very limited evidence and number of studies on the dynamic treatment effects of the gang impediment. The prevention of the youth violence, criminal behavior, as well as gang participation in the majority of cases has been rather unsuccessful. Some of the reasons of this failure include the focus on individuals and the associated risk factors instead of the focus on the neighboring environment of those individuals (Sorrentino, 1995). The interventions currently existing regarding the gang practices elimination largely exclude the responsibility of schools to prevent the gang involvement among students as well as the schooling disability to become a primary partner in the intervention in the environment of the at-risk young individuals that participate in gang activities.

However, the increased gang involvement points out on the need to develop a new approach that would acknowledge the responsibility of school system for treating the youth in the socially accepted manner and in such a way that would not deny the access for some individuals to the basic human needs such as the protection and security, socially accepted parental and peer role models, the identity and belonging, respect and self-esteem, as well as some conventional pathways to reach the success. Luckily, in spite of practice and policy barriers, the schools have the opportunity to satisfy the needs of youth being at risk since they possess the greatest time as well as the The potential of schools for playing a crucial role in the intervention and elimination of gang activities’ delinquency is not only within the compulsory academic remedy, but also the schools are considered to be the so-called collaborators in the process of providing with other necessary social services, the anti-aging and psychological curriculum delivery, as well as recreational programs. Even though a big majority of gang members is the high school dropouts that have been alienated from the school environment for a very long time, still there is a large share of gang members still being currently enrolled in schools (Sorrentino, 1995). Therefore, the school stuff that is aware about the gang involvement of students and the overall supportive environment at school, as well as some dynamic academic and social school programs may become a key component for the prevention policy for a lot of potential gang members in future.

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There is the evidence in the literature that those young individuals that have indicated to feel themselves good about their academic skills, those being connected with school, and those that have felt that their education is associated with the successful career development, finally, had positive relationships with other social groups of peers and mentors; though there was a small chance for them to be involved into gang activities.


The existent literature on the gang involvement shows that there are considerable gaps in understanding what is needed for the gang control programs to be more effective in preventing the gang participation. The review and integration of various theories associated with the gang participation suggest that there is an integrated model explaining the gang dynamics within the framework of risks and flexibility. The majority of studies explore the gang involvement from the youth’s point of view being currently involved in the gang lifestyle. This approach sets a number of limitations, including the impossibility to distinguish those risks and resilience factors triggering the gang membership, and those being the consequences of the gang involvement.

There is the evidence that self-perception, the involvement into school, relationships and interactions in the family, as well the abuses are considered to be the factors that may be affected by the membership in gangs. There is a crucial need in the conduct of longitudinal studies as they reveal the influence of school on the risk and resilience factors for the people during some time before the majority of children has exercised the involvement into gang behavior.

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Even though there is the limited number of studies and the empirical evidence about the role of school in the prevention of the gang involvement, though it is clear that there is the direct association between these two concepts. There is the need to extend the study of the school role in the gang involvement process from a single educational interference or a strategy to a broader set of measures including the school climate as well as the engagement of students into prevention programs of the gang involvement.



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