Blocking the gang way

How to stop New York gang culture from crossing the pond to Britain. Sandra Scott reports

Pick up a newspaper almost any day and you will find an article on youth gangs. But for many teachers, especially those in inner cities, gang violence and antisocial behaviour are not things they read about in newspapers - they see the effects in schools every day. Young people in gangs commit more antisocial acts, notably violent and drug-related crimes, than young people who are not. What can teachers do about it?

The first thing is to understand why young people join a gang. In general, those at risk do not do very well academically or socially. They have low expectations, get into trouble and have a poor relationship with school staff, who tend to label them negatively.

Scott H Decker and Barrick Van Winkle's 1996 study, Life In The Gang: Family, Friends And Violence, refers to the many "pushing" and "pulling"

attractions of joining a gang.

The provision of a community is a major "pull". The gang is your group of friends and your second "family". It gives you a role, status, security, support, friendship and - especially important to insecure adolescents - a sense of identity. You also have protection: They "watch your back".

Membership also helps avoid negatives - the "push" - such as loneliness, bullying or victimisation, isolation and boredom.

Sometimes there may be few other options in areas where there is a firmly established gang culture. In such communities, it is common for youngsters to be recruited through fear. Other reasons include protection from other gangs and family tradition.

Typically, members are poor, young, urban marginals. Many have emotional needs which are met only through gang membership. Antisocial traits - especially violence, alcohol and drug use and delinquency - and early sexual activity are important factors.

What can be done? The answer is complex. But several successful programmes have been implemented, with America leading the way. Most involve schools, police, social services and the probation service working together to pool resources. Psychological support for children at significant risk is also important.

The emphasis is on prevention. Children at risk need targeting early. If we don't take action, we will once again follow in the footsteps of our American friends and see armed guards in primaries


* One of the best school-based programmes is run by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training) provides lessons for elementary and middle schools, as well as a summer programme and training for families.

* For elementary school children (usually five to 13), the focus is on clear communication in difficult situations. Six structured lessons look at bullying, identifying when adults need to help, anger management and respect for others.

* The middle school scheme involves role play, positive reinforcement of behaviour and interactive learning.

Thirteen lessons take children through the different stages of how to avoid drugs, violence, gangs and crime. Children are shown how to set realistic goals and behave responsibly.

The emphasis is again on clear communication, verbal and non-verbal, and how to resist peer pressure. Other topics include the impact of decisions on goals, body language, recognising anger in others and calming them, conflict resolution and the consequences of fighting.

* The programme is so successful that in 2006, $250,000 was granted to US schools and local authorities to run it.

* For more information, visit

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