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Gang Involvement (see data for this topic)

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Why This Topic Is Important
When youth feel disconnected from family, school, community, or future work possibilities, they may view gangs as viable opportunities for support, respect, protection, or income (1). While youth involved in gangs comprise only a small portion of the adolescent population, they are disproportionately involved in violent crime—both as perpetrators and victims (1, 2). Youth involved in gangs also are more likely to drop out of school, abuse substances, engage in high risk sexual behavior, and experience other long-term problems such as employment instability (1, 2). The effects go beyond those directly involved, as well. Communities also can be affected in terms of reduced quality of life, increased crime, families moving out of neighborhoods, and economic costs, e.g., losses in property values, local businesses, and tax revenue (1).

In 2019, 9% of U.S. students ages 12-18 reported a gang presence at their school (3). When youth are exposed to violence or feel unsafe at school, it can negatively affect their health, mental health, and academic performance (3, 4). Because the majority of youth who join gangs do so between the ages of 11 and 15, early prevention is critical, along with cross-sector efforts that reach at-risk children and strengthen families, schools, and communities (1).
For more information, see kidsdata.org’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Ritter, N., et al. (2014). Changing course: Keeping kids out of gangs. National Institute of Justice Journal, 273, 16-27. Retrieved from: https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/changing-course-preventing-gang-membership

2.  Gottfredson, D. C., et al. (2018). Reducing gang violence: A randomized trial of functional family therapy. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Retrieved from: https://nij.ojp.gov/library/publications/reducing-gang-violence-randomized-trial-functional-family-therapy

3.  Irwin, V., et al. (2021). Report on indicators of school crime and safety: 2020. National Center for Education Statistics & Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2021092

4.  National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. (n.d.). Safety. Retrieved from: https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/topic-research/safety
Policy Implications
Policymakers across the state and nation are taking action to combat youth gang activity, as gangs are a serious public safety and public health concern. While most adolescents do not join gangs, those who do are more likely to commit violent crimes, be victimized by violence, and experience a host of negative life outcomes (1, 2). Gang activity also adversely effects school and community environments, and it carries substantial social costs (1).

The most effective approaches to combating gang activity go beyond law enforcement and gang suppression to comprehensive strategies that address individual, family, school, and community risk and protective factors associated with gang involvement (1, 3). Early prevention is critical, as most youth who join gangs become members between ages 11 and 15 (1).

Policy and practice options that could prevent and address gang involvement include:
  • Supporting evidence-based programs that strengthen family functioning and parenting skills, including early prevention programs (e.g., home-visiting services) that provide support to low-income pregnant mothers and families with young children (1, 4, 5)
  • Ensuring that schools assess gang problems and engage families and community partners to create effective safety plans and positive school climates, which are linked to lower rates of violence, improved academic performance, and other positive outcomes (1, 6, 7)
  • Supporting school-wide programs that help all students build social-emotional skills, such as problem solving, conflict resolution, and anger management (1, 2, 5, 7)
  • Ensuring that schools have non-punitive discipline policies that are clear, fair, and consistent, with tiered systems of appropriate responses to misconduct that keep students in school when possible, and that teachers and administrators are adequately trained in trauma-informed and culturally-sensitive disciplinary practices (7, 8)
  • Supporting coordinated community efforts to build on neighborhood strengths and provide at-risk and gang-involved youth with positive, supervised activities, such as tailored tutoring, mentoring, life- and job-skills training, and after-school programs (1, 3, 5)
  • Implementing evidence-based, comprehensive gang prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies tailored to community needs and based on cross-sector partnerships working in concert with law enforcement—all with careful planning, implementation, and evaluation (1, 3, 5)
For more information, visit the National Gang Center. Also see Policy Implications under kidsdata.org’s School Attendance and Discipline, School Safety, and Juvenile Arrests topics.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Ritter, N., et al. (2014). Changing course: Keeping kids out of gangs. National Institute of Justice Journal, 273, 16-27. Retrieved from: https://nij.ojp.gov/topics/articles/changing-course-preventing-gang-membership

2.  Lenzi, M., et al. (2019). Protecting youth from gang membership: Individual and school-level emotional competence. Journal of Community Psychology, 47(3), 563-578. Retrieved from: https://escholarship.org/uc/item/0zp459t3#main

3.  National Gang Center. (n.d.). Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention comprehensive gang model. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from: https://nationalgangcenter.ojp.gov/comprehensive-gang-model

4.  Gottfredson, D. C., et al. (2018). Reducing gang violence: A randomized trial of functional family therapy. National Criminal Justice Reference Service. Retrieved from: https://nij.ojp.gov/library/publications/reducing-gang-violence-randomized-trial-functional-family-therapy

5.  David-Ferdon, C., et al. (2016). A comprehensive technical package for the prevention of youth violence and associated risk behaviors. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/communicationresources/pub/technical-packages.html

6.  National Gang Center. (2020). Responding to gangs in schools: A collaborative approach to school safety. Retrieved from: https://nationalgangcenter.ojp.gov/gangs-in-schools

7.  Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Learning Policy Institute. Retrieved from: https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/educating-whole-child-report

8.  Whitaker, A., et al. (n.d.). Cops and no counselors: How the lack of school mental health staff is harming students. American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from: https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/cops-and-no-counselors
How Children Are Faring
In 2017-2019, around 1 in 25 California 7th, 9th, and 11th graders considered themselves gang members, down from more than 1 in 15 in 2011-2013. Students in non-traditional programs, students with lower levels of school connectedness, male students, and students whose parents did not finish high school are more likely to be involved with gangs than their peers in other groups. Asian youth had the lowest rates of gang involvement (2%) among racial/ethnic groups with data in 2017-2019, while African American/black and American Indian/Alaska Native youth had the highest (6%). Estimates of gang membership also were higher for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students (6%) when compared with straight students and those unsure of their sexual orientation (4%).

School staff reports from 2017-2019 show that gang-related activity was a moderate or severe problem according to 2% of responses by elementary school staff, 9% of responses by middle school staff, 12% of responses by high school staff, and 28% of responses by non-traditional program staff statewide.