Keeping gang culture out of the classroom

6th May 2016 at 00:00
Social media has made it more likely that young people will get involved in gangs, according to a new report. But while teachers can’t solve the gang problem, they can take steps to stop it entering through the school gates

On a dark London street, a group of young men wave knives into the lens of a video camera. Their faces are covered. It’s an intimidating scene. One of the boys sets fire to a bandana and the others gather round to watch it burn.

This is the start of a music video designed as a warning from one gang to another. Everything has been chosen to appear as threatening as possible, from the variety of weapons on display to the tight frame of the camera shot. But this video, freely available on YouTube, also serves another purpose: to recruit new young gang members, often teenagers who are still in school.

While gang culture is not a new problem, the rise of social media has made it an issue that is far more difficult for schools to tackle. With easy access to smartphones throughout the day, pupils are always plugged into a world beyond the classroom. This not only distracts from their learning, but also makes them more vulnerable to the lure of gangs.

A new report from Catch22, an organisation that works with troubled and vulnerable people, including gang-involved teenagers, highlights the problems that youth gang culture poses for a growing number of schools in the UK.

Yet the report also suggests that there is “nothing inevitable about gang culture permeating through a school’s gates” and sets out a series of recommendations in order to help teachers tackle the problem.

“In recent years, the government has published studies into gangs in mainstream schools, but we were still regularly being approached by teachers who didn’t know what to do and were asking for support and strategies,” says Dr Keir Irwin-Rogers, the author of the report. “Teachers can’t solve the problem of gangs in the community, but what they can do is take steps to keep the culture out of their classrooms.”

The report presents the findings of research conducted in five alternative provision (AP) schools across three UK cities. The aim was to understand the extent to which pupil gang involvement raises challenges for schools, what these challenges are and how schools should respond to them.

“Gang culture is not just an AP problem, but in these schools you have the luxury to design and implement interventions more easily than you do in mainstream,” says Beth Murray, assistant director of external affairs for Catch22. “By testing strategies in AP, we can get a better idea of what will work to tackle the problem more widely.”

The report provides a great deal of information about gangs and also offers strategies schools can use. Here is an overview.

Why do teenagers join gangs?

To address the problem, it is important to first appreciate why young people feel compelled to become involved with gangs. According to the report, underlying economic, social and cultural factors have a role to play. And Irwin-Rogers says it is not only the major inner cities where students are at risk – social media has meant that students beyond urban centres can be exposed to the culture, too.

The researchers found that many young people, particularly those who’ve been excluded from mainstream education, are despondent about future job opportunities and view drug dealing as the best way to make a significant amount of money in a short space of time. They discovered that when the school day ends, many of these pupils will return to “deprived and volatile communities in which status and respect depend on the acquisition of money, material goods and physical violence”.

This is where the music videos come in. It is not just about drug dealing anymore – larger gangs are now increasingly making their money through music as well as criminal enterprise. Popular channels on streaming websites can command high advertising revenues and download sales can put even more money into gangs’ pockets. Not only that, but it helps gangs to spread their influence and to target impressionable young people.

“They are being presented with something that is quite seductive,” Irwin-Rogers says, of the young people who may be watching the videos. “I don’t want to glamorise it, because these videos are designed to taunt rival gangs and often depict real acts of violence, but there is a mini-celebrity status that comes from appearing in them. There is also a sense of proximity, because the people in the videos come from the same communities as young viewers, which makes it seem more realistic and achievable for them.”

What impact does gang membership have?

Once youth gang culture enters a school, it can create a tense and challenging environment for pupils and teachers. Irwin-Roger’s research revealed that schools with a gang culture are more likely to experience high rates of violence and problems with drug use and the possession of weapons, as well as a decline in pupils’ educational engagement.

His findings echo those of a 2009 report commissioned by the NASUWT teaching union into gangs in schools. It found that gangs encourage strong antieducation attitudes among those who are involved and promote the belief that criminal activity can provide members with a better and more lucrative future than education and legitimate employment.

What age do children typically join gangs?

While young people can first become involved in gangs across a range of ages, the most likely point for gang involvement to begin is during early adolescence, between the ages of 11 and 15.

What can schools do?

The good news is that, according to the Catch22 report, these negative outcomes are “certainly not inevitable”. It states that there is little that teachers can do to prevent the spread of gang-related material on social media, but they can tackle the problem in schools by focusing on two main areas. The first is making sure that young people feel safe while they are at school and the second is increasing the extent to which pupils feel engaged with their education and attached to their school. The report recommends the following action:

Building staff-pupil relationships

Schools should seek to build supportive and trusting staff-pupil relationships. Not only are young people’s perceptions of school safety primarily shaped by the quality of these relationships, but positive relationships between staff and pupils also enable staff to identify, manage and address gang-related issues early on. To establish these relationships, Irwin-Rogers recommends that every pupil should have “frequent and prolonged” contact with at least one member of staff on a regular basis.

Knowledge and training

To support staff further, schools should provide adequate training for anyone who is working with pupils who are either gang-involved or who are at risk of gang involvement. Training should cover the causes, indicators and consequences of gang culture. Where there are members of staff who already have a good understanding of these issues, schools should seek to share knowledge and conduct training internally. It would be beneficial for staff to also receive mediation training to help them to pre-empt and respond to gang-related conflict between pupils.

Knowledge should be shared between schools as well as internally, particularly where pupils are being transferred from one school to another. The referring schools should provide adequate information about the pupil to the receiving schools and, where possible, schools should arrange home visits to establish positive relationships with pupils’ families early on.

Prevention and early intervention

Once a pupil is involved with a gang, it becomes increasingly difficult to counteract the forces that bind them to gang culture, so the focus for schools should be on prevention and early intervention. Irwin-Rogers recommends that any intervention programmes be piloted with children in key stages 2 and 3 who are at risk of gang involvement.

These interventions could include programmes centred around building character and resilience, which the report says may have “the potential to reduce the likelihood of young people becoming gang involved”.

Increasing educational engagement

Where schools are able to implement a more flexible curriculum, the report found that students are more likely to remain engaged in education. The relative flexibility of the alternative provision curriculum enabled pupils to become re-engaged through vocational learning opportunities and educational hooks such as music or sport. These provided a sense of achievement and supported young people to obtain an increased number of qualifications.

If mainstream schools are given the flexibility and the resources needed to offer the types of vocational learning offered to pupils in AP, the report concludes that this will reduce the likelihood of exclusion from mainstream.

Effective security measures

Schools need to design tailored security policies that are proportionate to local risk. In schools where weapon possession is already known to be a serious issue, routine pupil searches may be appropriate. But searches should be avoided where possible to respect the rights of young people and to prevent the breakdown of relationships of trust between pupils and staff. Where searches do need to take place, staff must be trained to carry them out. Parents and pupils should be informed about what is happening and why, and police should be consulted before a search policy is introduced.

Other potential security measures recommended include liaising with local police to arrange a police presence outside the school gates, or adopting a whole-school approach to educating young people about the dangers and consequences of knife possession.

It adds that all schools should maintain a visible staff presence at the end of the day at the school gates and the main bus stops used by pupils on their way home, particularly in areas where there are concerns about gang-related violence occurring in the surrounding vicinity. In these cases, school staff should be provided with safety training to allow them to intervene in the most appropriate way.

Working constructively with other stakeholders

Schools should aim to establish close and constructive working relationships with families and wider stakeholders, such as youth offending teams and voluntary organisations. By engaging with these groups, schools will obtain the best possible understanding of the needs of gang-involved pupils and the challenges they face.

It’s also important that schools encourage positive interactions between pupils and the police. Police officers should visit schools on a regular basis and interact with pupils to redress the negative perceptions of the police that gang-involved young people often have.

Giving students a chance

In his final reflections, Irwin-Rogers notes that the presence of ganginvolved pupils in schools does not automatically mean that gang culture is present. “Gang-involved young people do not spend the entirety of their waking hours wedded to a gang identity,” he concludes. “If [they] are given the opportunity to leave gang culture outside the school gates – with all its associated pressures and risks – and transition into a safe, nurturing environment, they will often embrace it. When this happens, the negative effects associated with gang involvement fade and gang-involved pupils simply become young people in need of a decent education.”

Helen Amass is editorial content manager for TES and a former teacher @Helen_Amass

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