Understanding Youth Gangs: Resources for Schools

August 2015

The School Survey on Crime and Safety asks a nationally representative sample of schools to report selected discipline problems occurring on their campus. Data from the 2009-2010 school year indicated that 16% of all schools reported some gang activity on their campus. Gang activity was most commonly reported in schools with the following characteristics:

  1. high schools
  2. enrollments of 1,000 or more
  3. located in cities
  4. enrollment more than 50% nonwhite
  5. more than 75% of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.1

Although national estimates make gang identification appear simple, the complexity of gangs is illustrated by the following example. According to the Texas Education Agency,2 only 2% of school districts (24) in Texas reported a total of 134 incidents of gang violence in 2013.3 Of those districts, only 4 reported more than 10 incidents happening in the same school year. These data suggest that gang activity is somewhat limited in schools. By contrast, in the most recent release of the Texas Gang Threat Assessment,33 the Texas Department of Public Safety stated concerns about juvenile involvement with transnational and Texas gangs engaging in drug crimes and violence, especially near the border. This report presents gangs as a serious issue for schools.

Information about juvenile gangs is available in different forms from various agencies. However, these forms are sometimes incompatible making sharing and comparing reports difficult. For example, the above descriptions of gang activity appear to have conflicting conclusions. These contrasts are most likely due to differences in definition and scope of study. The first step to making sense of information about gangs is to understand how they are typically defined.

Defining Gangs

Determining what should be called a “gang” has long been a serious challenge for practitioners and researchers. The ability to accurately measure gangs impacts how the issue can be addressed.21, 23, 27, 28 Schools that fail to define certain behaviors as gang-related may not be able to provide an effective solution. On the other hand, schools that inaccurately diagnose a problem as gang-related may be unnecessarily prescribing gang interventions that are inappropriate for the situation. Over and under-counting gang incidents may be due to differences in defining “gangs,” rather than inaccurate reporting.

Schools that fail to define certain behaviors as gang-related may not be able to provide an effective solution.

The terms 'street gang,' 'youth gang,' and 'criminal street gang' are often used interchangeably to describe groups with similar characteristics.23 Despite this lack of consistency, the following criteria are incorporated into most definitions of youth gangs:

  • A group of 3 or more youth or young adults ages 12-24 with a sworn allegiance to each other;
  • A shared identity, sometimes including a name and symbols;
  • Self-perception and acknowledgement by others that a group is recognized as a gang;
  • A degree of permanence and a degree of organization; and, For example, the Texas Penal Code defines a criminal street gang as “three or more persons having a common identifying sign or symbol or an identifiable leadership who continuously or regularly associate in the commission of criminal activities”.34 Data collected on gangs in Texas is assumed to measure the presence of gangs in this way, but it is not always that simple.

The following examples (derived from another source12) represent some of the complexities of measuring gang activity. Think about whether these incidents should be classified as gang-related:

Incident 1: Two students who claimed gang membership last year beat up another student.

Incident 2: Three gang members sell drugs at school. They do not share the profit with the other gang members.

Incident 3: One gang member and one non-gang member get caught stealing money out of the school office.

Incident 4: A non-gang member brings a weapon to school for protection from physical threats by known gang members. The student is caught by the metal detector.

It can be difficult in these scenarios to determine whether the incident should be classified as “gang-related” or not. These examples represent the true complexity of measuring gang activity. Some may view a certain situation as being certainly gang-related while others may think the line is unclear. To get a better understanding of gangs, one must first understand characteristics of youth who join gangs.

Unstable Behavior of Youth and Gang Structure

Recent research suggests that gangs are more like social networks than structured groups13, 20 and have minimal organization.17 These findings compete with ideas portrayed in the media that gangs are highly organized groups of individuals with designated roles and powerful leadership.

Youth are most likely to join a gang during their teen years when parental significance and supervision are temporarily replaced by peer influence.

One important distinction in gang research is that gangs can be classified as one of three different types. Klein16, 17 distinguished 1) drug gangs, 2) prison gangs, and 3) juvenile street gangs. He described them as being very different in how they are formed, their organization, and their behaviors. For example, prison gangs and drug cartels often have strong leadership and codes of loyalty. Juvenile street gangs often do not fit this model.

Youth behavior is often unstable, sometimes even changing from week to week. A child may have one group of friends this week, and a new group the next. Considering gangs, a youth who decides to join a gang today may not be a member next month. Research suggests that juvenile gangs have high rates of turnover, as members are typically only part of the gang for about one year.14, 17 This demonstrates the need to clarify gang membership. It is difficult to measure and understand gangs when they are constantly changing composition. With new members come new ideas, new goals, and new ways of doing things. This belief about the dynamic nature of youth gangs is known as far back as the 1950s. Yablonsky37 suggested that gangs are more like “near-groups” characterized by shifting membership, loosely defined roles, and limited cohesion. This could be why fitting a definition of gangs and determining gang membership is so difficult.

Gang Violence and Drugs in Schools

Researchers caution against labeling all youth gang members as violent given that gang members do not necessarily specialize in violence, but rather spend the majority of their time 'hanging out' with friends as most youth do.10, 29 The School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey asked a nationally representative sample of students aged 12-18 years old3 to express their perception of gang activity in 2013. Roughly 13% of the student sample reported gangs in their schools. Of those that reported a gang presence, 11% indicated that gangs had been involved in violence4 at least twice a month at school, and 15% said that gangs had been involved in selling drugs at school.5 In terms of the entire sample of students, only 1-2% reported serious gang activity at their schools.22 These data support researchers' claims that most gang activity is noncriminal and most gang crime is minor.17, 29

It has also been suggested that offenses committed by gang members are not always gang-motivated. Maxson and Klein19 pointed out that “involvement” and “motivation” should not be considered equally. In other words, gang members who commit a crime can be “involved,” but that does not mean that the crime was motivated by gang matters or “gang-related.” However, the researchers added that motive can often be difficult to determine. Therefore law enforcement agencies and schools cannot always be expected to know which incidents simply involve gang members or are gang-related.

Researchers caution against labeling all youth gang members as violent given that gang members do not necessarily specialize in violence, but rather spend the majority of their time 'hanging out' with friends as most youth do.

It should also be noted that some researchers have found that youth gang members are more often involved in violence and drug sales that non-gang youth. Gang members disproportionately participate in serious and violent crime during the time that they are members.23, 35 This involvement is claimed to be somehow linked to gang membership and not fully due to association with delinquent peers.18, 35 Gang youths are also more likely to take part in the drug trade than non-gang youths.30 These additional insights about gangs demonstrate the complexities of defining a gang, clarifying gang membership, and describing the role that gangs play in the lives of youth. Understanding that these issues exist can help schools better identify the issues they may be facing.

Risk Factors

Perhaps the greatest concern for educators is the factors thought to increase the risk that a student will join a gang. Klein and Maxson18 examined 20 self-report studies to identify risk factors that increase likelihood of gang membership. Peer and individual factors showed the most support, along with one family risk factor. Only inconclusive and limited support was found for school and neighborhood environment risk factors. This does not mean schools are unable to reduce students' likelihood of joining a gang. While the school environment may not play a significant role in gang risk, schools are complex social settings that can impact peer and individual risk factors.

School Gang Activty Survey

For example, helping students cope with difficult life events (e.g., an individual risk factor), such as the death of a loved one, can help reduce their risk of joining a gang. Other significant risk factors include non-delinquent problem behaviors (e.g., poor conflict resolution skills) and delinquent beliefs (e.g., believing that law violation can be beneficial or noble). Parental supervision was the only family risk factor supported by research.18 Schools can provide parents with the National Gang Center's Parents' Guide to Gangs for information about how they can help children.

It is most important to recognize that peers play the most significant role. A child's delinquent behavior is consistently associated with delinquent behaviors of those that they spend time with.7, 36 Additionally, peers influence a child's behavior more than parents during their teenage years.8, 15 It is no mistake that children are at peak risk of gang involvement around the ages of 13-15, and that risk decreases thereafter. During this time, parental supervision typically decreases and the role of peers co-opts the child's social life. It is strongly suggested that youth gang programs take this information into account when devising strategies to contend gang activity.18

Gang Programs

Anti-gang programs utilize prevention, intervention, suppression, or a combination of these strategies, with the purpose of reducing gangs and gang activities in schools or communities. Given the various definitions of gangs and the varying levels of gang activity in a given area, it is difficult to create a program than can be used at all places for all youth. Some programs choose to include an assessment component so that future strategies can be tailored to meet the needs of a school or community.6

The Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program is a school-based gang prevention strategy that was originally designed by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms (ATF) in 1992. Some critics argued that the original design of the program was based off a failed model, was not “gang specific” and instead targeted general delinquency, and was aimed at students with relatively low levels of gang involvement.11 As a result, the ATF along with educators and prevention specialists redesigned the program in the early 2000s. The new design recognized the body of research on risk factors and their associations with gang membership and the extent to which school-based programs are capable of and effective at addressing particular risk factors in the school, peer, and individual domains.29 The program's goals remained: to teach youth to avoid gangs, to prevent violence and criminal activity, and to assist in the development of positive attitudes toward law enforcement.11 The G.R.E.A.T. program now includes a thirteen-lesson curriculum taught by specially trained local law-enforcement personnel to elementary and middle school students. Teachers are asked to supplement the G.R.E.A.T. program by continuing to teach its principles in class. The program can also include a summer component and a family training component in which a G.R.E.A.T. facilitator works to foster positive family relations and engage parents in their children's lives.9 G.R.E.A.T. is one example of a gang program that schools can use to address risk factors and improve safety. Other local programs can also be useful depending on contextual characteristics of the school setting and problem.

Another example from the National Gang Center is the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) project which has developed an approach to gang intervention now called the Comprehensive Gang Model.24 The five strategies 1) community mobilization, 2) opportunities provision, 3) social intervention, 4) suppression, and 5) organizational change and development, associated with this model are described in the link above. For further discussion of the Model and how it can be used, schools may view A Guide to Assessing Your Community's Youth Gang Problem and Planning for Implementation.

Additional Resources

The National Gang Center in association with the OJJDP and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), serves “researchers, policymakers, and practitioners nationally” to provide leadership, information, training, and technical assistance that target gangs.25 The National Gang Center publishes many articles, resources, and tools available free online. Much of their content is based on findings from a survey of law enforcement agencies about youth gangs (National Youth Gang Surveys). Publications and tools listed on the agency's website can be particularly useful for schools. These include a Strategic Planning Tool, frequent newsletters, and even videos such as “Why Youth Join Gangs”. Information about training, events, and conferences is also listed.

It is clear that youth gangs are extremely complex, and therefore not well understood. This is in part due to lack of consistency in defining gangs and their membership, but also due to the dynamic behavior of youth. Youth are most likely to join a gang during their teen years when parental significance and supervision are temporarily replaced by peer influence. Understanding these few details and using other resources discussed in this article can help schools to choose appropriate prevention, intervention, and suppression programs to address their specific gang issues.


For the mentioned characteristics, percentages were 38%, 48%, 23%, 29%, and 26% respectively.

2Only incidents that occurred in that year are counted. Disciplinary records include “continued” disciplinary status incidents. Such incidents are not included in these data.

3This sample included only students who attend a public or private school and were not homeschooled at the time of the interview.

4The question specifically asked about “fights, attacks, or other violence.”

5The percent of students indicating that they did not know was 34% and 56%, respectively.


6 Arciaga, M., Sakamoto, W., & Fearbry Jones, E. (2010). Responding to gangs in the school setting. National Youth Gang Center Bulletin (No. 5). Tallahassee, FL: National Gang Center. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/content/documents/bulletin-5.pdf.

7 Akers, R.L., & Sellers, C.S. (2009). Criminological theories: Introduction, evaluation, and application. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

8 Bao, W., Haas, A., Chen, X., & Pi, Y. (2012). Repeated strains, social control, social learning and delinquency: Testing an integrated model of general strain theory in China. Youth & Society.

9 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. (2014). Fact sheet: gang resistance and education training (G.R.E.A.T.) program. Retrieved from https://www.atf.gov/publications/factsheets/factsheet-gang-resistance-education-and-training.html.

10 Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA. (2007). Youth gangs and schools. Los Angeles, CA: Author at University of California Los Angeles. Retrieved from http://smhp.psych.ucla.edu/pdfdocs/policyissues/youth%20gangs%20&%20schools.pdf.

11 Esbensen, F., Osgood, D.W., Peterson, D., Taylor, T.J., & Carson, D.C. (2013). Short- and long-term outcome results from a multisite evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. program. Criminology & Public Policy, 12 (3).

12 Felson, M., & Ecker, M. (2016). Crime and everyday life. (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

13 Fleisher, M.S. (2002). Doing field research on diverse gangs: Interpreting youth gangs as social networks. In: C.R. Huff (Ed.), Gangs in America III. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

14 Howell, J.C., Moore, J.P., & Egley, A. (2002). The changing boundaries of youth gangs. In C.R. Huff (Ed.), Gangs in America III. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

15 Johnson, M. C., & Menard, S. (2012). A longitudinal study of delinquency abstention. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 10.

16 Klein, M.W. (2002). Street gangs: A cross-national perspective. In C.R. Huff (Ed.), Gangs in America III. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

17 Klein, M.W. (2004). Gang cop: The words and ways of Officer Paco Domingo. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

18 Klein, M.W., Maxson, C.L. (2006). Street gang patterns and policies. New York, NY: Oxford.

19 Maxson, C.L., & Klein, M.W. (1990). Defining gang homicide: An updated look at member and motive approaches. In C.R. Huff (ed.), Gangs in America, (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

20 McGloin, J.M. (2007). The organizational structure of street gangs in Newark, New Jersey: A network analysis methodology. Juvenile Gang Research, 15(1).

21Naber, P.A., May, D.C., Decker, S.H., Minor, K.I., & Wells, J.B. (2006). Are there gangs in schools? It depends upon whom you ask. Journal of School Violence, 5(2).

22 National Crime Victimization Survey School Crime Supplement. (2013). School crime supplement [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/ICPSR/studies/34980.

23 National Gang Center. (2014). Frequently asked questions about gangs. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/About/FAQ#q1.

24 National Gang Center. (2015a). OJJDP Comprehensive gang model. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Comprehensive-Gang-Model/About.

25 National Gang Center. (2015b). About the National Gang Center. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/About.

26 National Institute of Justice. (2015). Program profile: Little village gang violence reduction project (comprehensive gang model). Retrieved from http://www.crimesolutions.gov/ProgramDetails.aspx?ID=278.

27 National School Safety and Security Services. (2014). Gangs & school safety. Cleveland, Ohio: NSSSS. Retrieved http://www.schoolsecurity.org/trends/gangs/.

28 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (2009). OJJDP comprehensive gang model: a Guide to assessing your community's youth gang problem. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgangcenter.gov/Content/Documents/Assessment-Guide/Assessment-Guide.pdf.

29 Peterson, D. & Morgan, K.A. (2002). Toward an understanding of youth gang involvement. In S. Jimerson, A. Nickerson, & M.J. Mayer (Eds.), Handbook of School Violence and School Safety: International Research and Practice. (2nd Ed.) Florence, KY: Taylor and Francis.

30 Spergel, I.A. (1995). The youth gang problem: A community approach. New York: Oxford University Press.

31 Struyk, R. (2006). Gangs in our schools: identifying gang indicators in our school population. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 80(1):11-13.

32 Texas Education Agency. (2013). PEIMS disciplinary data. [Restricted Data file]. Retrieved from Texas Education Agency.

33 Texas Department of Public Safety. (2014). Texas gang threat assessment. Retrieved from https://www.dps.texas.gov/director_staff/media_and_communications/2014/txGangThreatAssessment.pdf.

34 Texas Penal Code. (2015). Title 11. Organized crime: chapter 71 organized crime section 01. Retrieved from http://www.statutes.legis.state.tx.us/Docs/PE/htm/PE.71.htm.

35 Thornberry, T.P. (1998). Membership in youth gangs and involvement in serious and violent offending. In R. Loeber and D.P. Farrington (eds.), Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

36 Warr, M. (2002). Companions in crime: The social aspects of criminal conduct. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

37 Yablonsky, L. (1959). The delinquent gang as a near-group. Social Problems, 7(2).