During the first half of the 1990s, the number of gangs in the United States multiplied more than sixfold, from 4,881 in 1992 to an estimated 31,000 in 1996. Beginning in 1995, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s National Youth Gang Center has conducted an annual poll of some three thousand police departments and sheriff departments, asking them about local gang activity. In the first survey, 58 percent of the law enforcement agencies reported the existence of youth gangs in their communities. Since then, the numbers have fallen slightly, to 53 percent in 1996, and to 51 percent in 1997.
The results contradict the long-standing perception that gangs are primarily an inner-city phenomenon. Granted, the prevalence is highest in large cities, with 74 percent of those jurisdictions acknowledging the presence of gangs. But suburban counties aren’t far behind, at 57 percent, which is considerably higher than small cities (34 percent). As for rural counties, rarely thought of as hotbeds of gang activity, 25 percent have gang members prowling the streets. What’s more, the number of gangs has been on the rise in our small cities, suburbs and rural areas, while our large urban centers have seen the opposite pattern develop.
Another surprising trend has been the influx of female members. Girls are believed to make up as much as one-quarter to one-third of all urban gangs, whereas males used to outnumber females twenty to one. Nearly three in four gang members are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four; one in six is fourteen or younger.
Parents have good reason to be concerned if their teenager joins a gang. Older members are often involved in drug-dealing and criminal activity. Gang involvement increases the likelihood that a boy or girl will become entangled in drugs, gunplay, vandalism and theft. For one thing, gangs attract kids who want to belong and tend to be highly susceptible to peer pressure. But also, the combination of security and anonymity that membership in any group confers sometimes exerts a strange power over people, leading them to do things they would never consider on their own.
“Mores change when someone is part of a gang,” observes Dr. Kenneth Sladkin. A child and adolescent psychiatrist in the Fort Lauderdale area, he has worked with gang members over the years. “Once you belong to a gang long enough,” he continues, “it’s easy to lose your moral foundation and adopt the group’s standards.”
Not every kid in a gang turns to crime. In fact, many don’t. Of the estimated eight hundred thousand gang members in the United States, a fair number undoubtedly could be described as gang “wanna-bes”—kids whom Dr. Sladkin describes as “not the backbone of the gangs but more on the periphery.”
Being in a gang appeals to some adolescents’ fantasies of rebellion and desire for high drama. They’re also drawn to the camaraderie and the “colors” and hand signs that distinguish one bunch from another.
“For these kids, the gangs are almost like social clubs,” says Dr. Sladkin. “They meet in school and talk about who’s in this gang or that gang. They’re not the youngsters who are staying out all night and getting mixed up in crime and turf wars.”
Protecting Teens From Gangs
The National Parent-Teacher Association recommends that parents contact their local police department to get a sense of the extent of gang activity, if any, in their community and schools. Teenagers who are most vulnerable to the lure of gangs include those on the fringes of the social hierarchy. Low self-esteem and a history of academic failure also drive young people to gangs. Among the tip-offs that a teen may be fraternizing with a gang:
- Change in friends
- Wearing the same color combination repeatedly
- Flashing hand signs
- Secrecy about his whereabouts and activities
- Suddenly having money, with no known resources
- Loss of interest in school
- Symptoms of substance abuse
- Tattoos, either self-drawn in ink or professionally executed
The best way for keeping a young person from getting caught up in the gang lifestyle is to follow the same principles stressed throughout this book: Spend time with him, show him affection and stay in touch with him and his world, even when he seems to be shutting you out. It’s a sad commentary that for some young people, gangs function as surrogate families. Making a teenager feel loved and accepted for who he is at home eliminates much of the lure of a gang in the first place.