The issue of gang activity and its relationship to gang violence needs to move away from personal beliefs and attitudes and toward a discussion that is based on empirical data and reliable information. Even more, it is important to examine whether gang violence in a local community is directly related to school violence, or whether gang activity may be an indication of a larger concern about being victimized by violence on the part of students. While gang activity is related to violence in public schools, it is the response of schools to the problem of gang violence that also impacts the violence that occurs within public schools.
Before examining the reasons for the relationship between gang violence and school, it is important to actually examine statistics and studies to determine if it can be said that a relationship between gang violence and school violence exists at all. First, statistics indicate that 46% of students attending public schools in the United States indicated that a gang was present at their schools. In contrast, only 2% of students in private schools in the United States reported the presence of a gang. This information demonstrates that a discussion about the relationship of gang activity to violence in schools should indeed be focused on public schools. There does not appear to be a major presence of gangs and gang activity within the private schools in the United States.
It is important to note that violence in schools can be defined in different ways. The concept of violence in schools is often defined by physical attacks or using threats of force in order to take money or personal belongings. However, in research in which the issue of gang activity in communities is studied in relation to school violence, it is victimization that is often measured, meaning being victimized by gang members with the use of violence or threats of violence or being victims of theft of property on the part of gang members. The distinction of how gang violence is defined in schools may seem trivial to some, but it is important to recognize the way in which the term "violence" is being measured and what is meant by "violence" when it is discussed in relation to gang activity. It is also worth understanding that there can be some overlap between victimization and violence, such as when students in public schools may be victims of theft that occurs because of a threat of violence against them if they do not hand over money or other items as opposed to theft that might occur from their lockers when they are not present. When the concept of victimization is used as opposed to the concept of violence, statistics indicate that 54% of students in schools in which the presence of gang activity has been identified have reported being victims of violence or bullying from gang members or being the victims of theft.
Regardless of whether measures of violence or measures of victimization that include theft are used, a clear relationship between gang activity in communities and school violence have been established both within the academic literature and based on national statistics of reported crimes in schools. In communities in which there are higher levels of gang activity, it can be expected that higher levels of crime and violence will occur in schools. This information alone is not enough to truly understand the relationship between gang activity and school violence. In order for school officials, law enforcement, and parents to understand the relationship between gang activity and violence in public schools, the reasons for this relationship must be examined. It might be easy to assume that gang activity on the streets of a local community will simply permeate the community's schools and result in students becoming victims. However, there may be other reasons for the relationship between gang activity and violence in public schools. In addition, even if there are not other reasons for the relationship between gang activity and violence in public schools, it is necessary to examine how gang activity on the streets of a city results in violence in the local public schools.
One of the reasons for the relationship between gang activity and violence in public schools is because of the learning process that occurs among youth from being involved in gangs. Young people who become involved in gang activity and associate with gang members on the streets carry those activities into their schools. If youth learn from associations with gangs to defend friends with violence or that to commit violence against others is a way in which to earn respect, then those activities will take place in the school setting. Furthermore, if young people learn to to carry guns as a way to show dominance against others, then they will carry guns and act out against both their classmates and against authority figures in schools. In this way, gang activity does not occur in a vacuum. If young people are involved in gang activity, then the lessons and influences that occur because of gang activity will carry over into the school environment.
Another reason for the relationship between gang activity and violence in public schools is the larger social and economic conditions that are faced by students in public schools. In urban areas, public school students often come from lower socio-economic levels. Students in private schools often come from middle class or upper class backgrounds. Living in poverty or in the lower social classes in society increases the chances of being around people, either family members or friends, or are regularly involved in violent and criminal activities. Once again, violence and criminal activities do not occur in a vacuum. The lessons that children and adolescents learn in their home lives are taken with them into the public schools. If young people become involved in gang activity as a way to make themselves feel better about their low social status or simply because their family members and friends are involved in gang activity, then that gang activity and the violence and criminal activity associated with it will impact the public schools.
Interestingly, gang activity in schools may also be a result of the actions that school officials take to actually reduce gang violence in public schools. As school administrators implement security policies that include metal detectors, security cameras, and security personnel, students generally become more fearful for their safety as opposed to feeling safer. Research has shown that students who might have otherwise avoided becoming involved in gang activity actually seek out gangs because of a perception that gang affiliation will protect them from being victims of violence. Rather than bringing gang activity and gang affiliations with them into the public schools, some students make the decision to seek out gang affiliations in order to be part of a group that they believe will protect them from other gangs. Unfortunately, as students seek out gangs as a means of protection, the result is that violence and victimization increases in the public schools because there is a greater level of conflict. By attempting to use gang affiliation as a means of protection, students who might be fearful for their safety because of the actions of school administrators are only serving to create greater conflict between groups and increase the chances of becoming victims of violence in school.
Overall, what has been demonstrated in the information that has been examined is that there is a relationship between gang activity in a community and violence in the local public schools. With an increased level of gang activity, violence in public schools increases because the students who are involved in gang activity bring those activities and affiliations into the schools. The lives that students lead away from the public schools do not stop or become less important once they enter a public school. Instead, the living situations and relationships that influence their personal lives also impact how they behave and perform while at school.
However, the involvement of students in gang activity outside of school is not the only way in which gang activity enters public schools. Instead, school administrators may play a role in actually helping to proliferate gang activity by making students feel less safe in the school environment. In order to feel safer against being victims of gang activity and violence in schools, students may seek out gangs and become affiliated with them not understanding that such affiliations actually only increase their likelihood of being victimized. School administrators may need to provide information to students about the dangers of gang affiliation and the reality that being part of a gang is not likely to decrease their chances of being victimized.
In the end, the relationship between gang activity and school violence is not entirely a direct relationship. While the presence of gangs in a local community increases violence in schools because of the associations and influences of students, parents, school officials, and law enforcement must recognize the larger social and economic issues that impact school violence in relation to gang activity. There must be an understanding that gang activity may by itself be a result of the economic and social environments in which young people grow up, particularly in urban areas. At the same time, there must also be an understanding of the view that young people may have about the potential benefits that gang activity can bring in order to avoid being victims of crime and violence in public schools.
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