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What Happens to Disenfranchised Students?

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A recent news reporter used the word 'gang' when referencing a young man wanting to join ISIS.  It was a word and idea that had been part of our thinking all these months, but there it was, the first time it was said out loud. What is it about gangs and gang-like activity that attracts young people?

In our country, gangs have been around for a very long time. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP):

Street gangs on the East Coast developed in three phases (Adamson, 1998; Sante, 1991). The first gang-like groups began to emerge immediately after the American Revolution ended in 1783, but they were not seasoned criminals; only youth fighting over local turf. The beginning of serious ganging in New York City would commence a few years later, around 1820, in the wake of far more large-scale immigration. The gangs that emerged from this melting pot were far more structured and dangerous. A third wave of gang activity developed in the 1950s and 1960s when Latino and black populations arrived en masse.

Research offered by the OJJDP reveals five categories of risk factors that contribute to youth gang membership: community, family, school, peer group, and individual. We may not believe we have tremendous impact on community, family, peer group and individual causes, but we can take a serious look the ten factors that are within our control. These are the factors in the school category:

  1. academic failure
  2. low educational aspirations, especially among females
  3. negative labeling by teachers
  4. trouble at school
  5. few teacher role models
  6. educational frustration
  7. low commitment to school
  8. high levels of antisocial behaviors in school
  9. low achievement test scores  
  10. identification as being learning disabled

In 2002, Advanced Concepts Group of Scandia National Laboratories released a report entitled Terrorist Organizations And Criminal Street Gangs ...An argument for an analogy. In it they reported:

... the structure of organizations, and the motivations of individuals to join them, we argue that gangs are a legitimate analog for terrorist and terrorist-like groups. The formation of both of these groups is stimulated by the belief in a lack of opportunity for self-realization, a search for structure and moral order in what appears to be a chaotic world, and the associated felt devaluation of self-identity. The groups become a means to define that self, and to provide the resources and share the responsibility for acts that will create a world within which these individuals can see hope and opportunity. In order for that world to be created, the creators (the groups) must speak to someone, must have an audience for their cause. Hence, violence as theater. Furthermore, because the individual is disenfranchised and powerless in the world of the dominant culture, and because participation in the group allows for the diffusion of responsibility for extra-legal acts, it is groups, not individuals, that wield power and have legitimacy.

 We must pay close attention to the concept of being disenfranchised from what the report referred to as "the dominant culture". As educators, we do not need much research to awaken us to this dynamic.  If we hold the disenfranchised concept and look around the building, we can see children who are living this every day. The further away a student is from the center of the school, the more likely they are to be described by one of the ten factors listed above. They aren't the star athletes or the cheerleaders, the class or club leaders, or the scholastically achieving. They aren't getting adult recognition for anything positive. Instead, they appear to lack motivation, have a troubled family history, get in trouble in school, lack teachers as role models, do poorly on achievement tests, and/or are learning disabled. As the issues of motivation, behavior, abilities, labeling and commitment to learning are addressed, awareness of the emotional issues that accompany the risk factors and a plan to intervene on both the academic and emotional issues can make a difference...one far beyond the goal for these students to graduate.

Gang behavior may not be on the top of the list for our attention but gang activity is reported in every state and in the District of Columbia. Everywhere young people search for a place to belong and be valued. The news keeps us aware of the western young men and women who are attracted to terrorist organizations. As a world, we are struggling to understand terrorism and those who join a terrorist cause.

As educators, we have the opportunity to use this big picture to inform our work with the young people with whom we are working. A continued focus on the ten risk factors is a beginning. But without an understanding of the factors that underlie those risk factors, we may not make the change we hope for.  This isn't a call for more support staff, or handing off the emotional part of the work to others.  No, it is every educator's job to create a culture where all young people can find themselves, known and welcome. The school community breathes as an ecosystem. And as such, welcoming all, encouraging all, refraining from labeling, and investigating how the structure and patterns of our schools keep some on the fringe, looking in. Some will find their ways to gangs and others will drift quietly away but some will never forget or recover from the feeling of disenfranchisement and they will bring it back with rage.

How creative could we get if we really did mean to include all the students in a recognizable and positive way? Do our extracurricular activities unintentionally reflect certain values?  For example:

  1. Are drama activities overshadowed by football activities?
  2. Is there a set of school values that rank sports, academic activities like debate, and the arts?
  3. Is there opportunity for group activities for all students?
  4. And do some students need encouragement to join a group or pick up an instrument or bring their voices from church to school musicals? 

If our graduates experienced being part of and accepted by the dominant culture in their 13 years in public school, perhaps they would be less likely to be looking for another group to join in order to feel part of something. Perhaps they would be more likely to graduate well on the path to their success in the world. That will make them more college and career ready. It will be good for them and for our society as well.

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