Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Young people and gangs---a question of life and death

Youth gangs are an issue for many countries. We have all seen the images in various media ranging from the Hollywood fantasy to the real scenarios played out in the news. In New Zealand the problem has been with us for many years. In some area of our cities, these gangs reach in to the lives of many of our young people and the families they belong to. I see the results of young people joining these gangs on a daily basis through the work I do in a large secondary school.
I have been concerned for many years and as I learn more about why young people join gang s and what the implications are for their future, I have become even more worried. As our youth become more involved with gangs, they have less to do with their families. We have all heard that some young people join gangs because they are looking for something that is missing in their own families. This is not so for all or even most of the recruits into these gangs. The sad fact is that some live in families who are affiliated with gangs--- the adult or more junior form and that only adds to the likelihood that they too will end up in a gang.
Many secondary schools are well aware that some of their students are either on the ‘edge’ of gang activity or are actively involved. The more the students gravitate towards full membership, the less we see of these students. When they are present they often behave in ways that bring them to the notice of ‘student management systems’ in schools and can take up a great deal of time. They can have an insidious effect on the life of a school; they can be involved in a variety of activities in schools, ranging from low level intimidation to outright criminal behaviours. They can take a huge amount of teacher time, which then impacts on the chances of other vulnerable students.
We underestimate the effect these young people have in the schools and in the community. If a family is a ‘gang family,’ there is every chance that the surrounding streets will be part of their territory and even though they may constitute a minority of the area, their influence is huge. For young people not in gangs, the very existence of such ‘houses’ in their neighbourhood constitutes a threat or a draw card. For our vulnerable young people, recruitment into youth gangs is a very real possibility.
There are many ways in which youth gangs recruit their new younger members. It may happen in the playground of the school. A young person desire to be accepted can feed into seeking membership. It may be for protection from others bullying them. It may be that they are not getting acceptance in their own families, or it may simply be a desire to have ‘fun’. The images they see on media/TV may attract them. Let’s face it; movies, TV, and other media forms portray gangs in a light that can and does connect with young people.
Gangs use other means to recruit. They may threaten a young person on the way to school or to the shops. They may also offer benefits. I have heard anecdotal accounts of young men being offered sex in order to lure the ‘prospect’ into gang activity. The issue of the young woman involved is yet another problem.  
There is a gradual pulling away from the family and a time is reached when even if a young person expresses doubts about joining the gang, it can be too late. That disassociation from the family is not always the ‘model’ though. Some young people are able to separate their ‘gang life’ from their family life, but not for too long. The warning sign may be missed. That depends on the strength of parenting and the levels of communication within the family.
There is another worrying aspect to youth gangs. Their connection to ‘living’ is sometimes strained. For those young people on the ‘edge’ but moving towards the gang culture, sometimes there are doubts. They may be involved in alternate educational services and start seeing new possibilities, other than that of the gang. If the hold on them is still strong, a tension is set up, that may well result in huge pressures on them. They are pulled between the two worlds; one that further ensconces them in the gang and the other that leads to a more mainstream scenario.
The stress around this can be fatal. Suicidal ideation increases and sometimes carried out. There have been multiple deaths of young people unable to cope with the competing pressures. Sadly that is a possibility that is increasing in society. There is an unwillingness to talk about this issue. We must face it head on or see more young lives at risk.
Our schools are but the recipients of what society projects, but they are also beacons of hope. If we do not resource them so that they can identity and link in with families and agencies who can help, then we will see many more young people lost to the gangs and to life.