In our middle class world, we don’t think twice about using the terms “mug“, “biscuit“, or “Picasso“. In our culture, these words all have a common and benign meaning.  However, according to the book, “Gang Related: Signs, Signals and Slang of Modern Gangs and Organized Crime“, these terms have a very different meaning for gangs which is often dark and nefarious.  For instance, take the word “mug“.  In our world, the word “mug” represents a cup used to hold hot beverages, but for many gang members it can mean sexual intercourse, idiot, or identification of another gang member. Now take the term, “biscuit“. A “biscuit” usually means a hot roll made from dough; however, for gangs it often identifies a gun.  Lastly, when we think of the term “Picasso“, we see him as a vibrant painter, but for gang members it can mean a face slashing (ouch!).

The Gang Image Portrayed by Hollywood

The Baseball Gang…really?

For the majority of school counselors, we fail to understand the world of gang members or why someone would want to join a gang.  In fact, gangs don’t seem that bad on television or movies.  The first time I saw Hollywood’s interpretation of a gang was the 1979 cult classic, “The Warriors”. This movie starred the handsome Michael Beck, as the gang leader of the Warriors, who was trying to get his group back to Coney Island after they were falsely accused of killing Cyrus, leader of the Gramercy Riffs. Throughout the movie, you have several gangs (clowns, baseball players, women) running after our heroes until they were finally able to prove their innocence and the real shooter was caught (you never see what happens to the shooter and his gang, but intuitively you know they were killed). At the end of the movie, former Eagle, Joe Walsh, sings a top 40 rock song and our hero walks off into the sunset with a girl he picked up along the way.  Thirty six years later the film, “The Warriors”, is still popular with our current youth.  In fact, while I was writing this post, I asked my teenage son where the phrase, “Can you dig it” came from and he had no trouble identifying the movie.  Also, a comic and a video game have been made from the movie.  However, the movie is not without controversy.  During the initial showing of the movie in 1979, movie theaters had to hire extra security because youths were bringing guns to the cinemas.  After a showing in 2012, three deaths were associated with the film and two of the deaths were gang related killings.

No Cyrus, we don’t dig youth joining gangs

Violence Off the Screen the Worst Recent Movie Theater Attacks-Gang Film The Warriors Sparks Violence

Hollywood Biker

Fast forward thirty years to another gang related show called “Sons of Anarchy” (SOA).  The show is based on the world of the Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs (OMC).  However, unlike real motorcycle gangs, the characters are suave, have perfect teeth, and have good hygiene. In the SOA series, the members are all white (like most OMCs) and they are portrayed as cool and glamorous. In addition, the show elevates the status of the “One Percenters” or the small percentage of bikers who are involved in organized crime (i.e. Hell’s Angels and Mongols). Also, the series shows law enforcement as corrupt and easily manipulated by the bikers (like cops need more bad press). Due to the popularity of the show among bikers and the “One Percenters“, the National Gang Crime Research Center makes several predictions about how it can impact biker culture:

1.  Because the show glamorizes the “One Percenters“, many bikers may be enticed to join outlaw gangs like the Mongols.

Real Biker

2. There is a chance that these bikers will simulate the SOA identity and participate in crime and violence (drugs and prostitution).
3.  Due to the simulation of the SOA persona, these bikers may assume the colors of OMCs when they ride; therefore, they may be confronted by the “One Percenters” as wannabes and become victims of gang attacks.

Sons of Anarchy

Although “The Warriors” and “Sons of Anarchy” are creations of Hollywood, gangs are a real part of American culture and a threat to our youth.  The FBI has identified several gangs in America that pose the greatest threat due to their involvement in prostitution, drugs, sex trafficking, pornography, violence, and involvement in terrorism.

Dangerous American Gangs

History of Dangerous Gangs in America

The rise of dangerous gangs in America began in the 1820’s from the mass immigration of ethnic groups from Eastern Europe to the Northeastern and Midwestern US.  Due to the lack of jobs and economic poverty in urban areas, youth consistently engaged in violence among ethnic lines. Overtime, youth gangs dissolved, but reemerged with the migration of African Americans from the South. Interracial violence occurred when white youth fought to keep black youth out of their neighborhoods.  Following the influx of African Americans to the cities, a great migration of Hispanics arrived in the Southwestern United States. It was during the 1960’s that gang demographics changed in the United States with two-thirds of the gangs becoming Black and Hispanic.

Gangs came to national attention in 1965 when a white police officer pulled over 21 year old Marquette Frye on suspicion of intoxication. Following his arrest, the Watts Community, in South Central Los Angeles, erupted into violence with rioting by street gangs.  After the riots, the street gangs decided to organize under the Black Power Movement which was eventually disbanded by the FBI. From the lack of leadership in the Black community, the youth in the South Central Los Angeles formed the gang called the Crips. Quickly a rival gang formed in Compton area called the Bloods and violence spilled into the neighborhoods. Since the 1960’s, the number of gangs has grown astronomically to include over 33,000 groups who regularly recruit youth in the schools, neighborhoods, and online to keep their groups alive and thriving.

History of Street Gangs
Gang History Timeline
PBS: Crips and Bloods

Reasons Why Youth Join Gangs

Although there is no universal definition of a youth gang, the National School Safety and Security Services identifies four characteristics that must be present in order to be classified as a gang. These characteristics include:

  • frequent interaction in the community and/or school
  • involvement in illegal activities
  • common identity (ethnicity, beliefs, interests)
  • common method of identification (colors or clothing)
Although we may not understand the reasons why students decide to join gangs, researchers have found multiple reasons.  Researcher Buddy Howell says that there are multiple negative factors that push youth into gang involvement as well as perceived positive reasons that pull them into gangs. These pushes and pulls are risk factors that make it more likely that an individual will join a gang and include:

1. Individual factors include problem behaviors in schools, impulsiveness, negative life events, abuse, and victimization.  In fact, early aggressive behaviors in 2nd or 3rd grade (stealing, lying, fighting, and blaming others) can be individual factors that can predict push factors for future gang involvement. Also, researchers found that the availability of marijuana in the community increases the odds of joining a gang by 3.6% (Early Precursors of Gang Membership: A Study of Seattle Youth).
2. Family factors can push youth into gangs. The examples include divorce, family transition,
disengaged parenting, inconsistent rules, and poor parental supervision.
3. School factors like poor school performance, low school attachment, constant suspensions/expulsions, and labeling students as slow learners can push students toward gang involvement as they are looking for acceptance that they lacked in the school environment.
4. Peer Group Influence or the association with delinquent peers can cause youth to feel pressured (whether they believe the actions are wrong or right) to act out their antisocial beliefs and separate from their mainstream peers.
5. Community factors include poverty, neighborhood disorganization (segregation, high crime, and marginalization) can push students into gangs.
Maslow and gang membership

About half of the kids who display these risk factors do not actually join a gang, but just try the gang out to see how it fits. However when a student has an accumulation of risk factors in multiple domains, the more likely the youth will be pushed into joining a gang. Surprisingly, students are generally not forced to join a gang, but are enticed by positive opportunities or pulls like money, girls, drugs, and power. Youth involvement in gangs usually starts in late elementary or early middle school when kids are between the ages of 10 or 12. The decision to join takes about 6 months to a year with the mean age of initiation into a gang around age 15.

Gangs on Social Media

Gang members showing signs on Facebook

Although gangs exist in schools and communities all over the world, youth don’t have to go looking for gangs to be able to join. A youth who lives in a school or community without the presence of gangs can merely go to Facebook and type in gang slang to access a gang site.  Many of these pages exemplify gangs who are involved in racial hatred, drug dealing, sex trafficking, pornography, arms sales and much more.  Although these are public pages, one must know the terminology to find them buried deep within Facebook.  Since gangs thrive in anonymity, it is often difficult for the regular civilian to detect them in neighborhoods or schools. Since they are cyclical and ever-changing, community and school leaders often do not recognize the signs of gangs in their schools; therefore, they tend to deny or downplay their presence. Also, gangs thrive in environments where there is animosity toward authority and law enforcement, distrust, and lack of social order. Since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, gangs have used the disillusionment of the youth of the area to recruit new members. Their presence was noticed by civil rights activist Delia Bell-Powell who was interviewed by Newsweek Magazine. “  The gang members who’ve been here [among the protesters] are not something we can ignore…we’ve got a large gang culture in this area, so these gangs getting bigger, gaining more members, is disconcerting. That might end up being the worst repercussion of all this.”

Why Youth Join Gangs
Gangs on Facebook
Newsweek: For St. Louis Gangs: Ferguson Has Become a Recruiting Tool

How Can Educators Make a Difference for Youth?

Now that we know gangs are ever present in our community, schools, and on the world wide web, how can we help our youth? The National Gang Center provides a great video for educators to view about gangs and why youth decide to join these organizations.  In addition, this video is a great staff development tool to use to educate your staff about this underlying issue in our schools.

National Gang Center Educator Video

Tips for educators to help youth stay out of gangs:

  • Show genuine interest in youth.
  • Create safe environments for youth that include normal routines and predictable outcomes.
  • Provide choices that give them a since of control.
  • Instill hope for the future by helping them set goals.
  • Set clear, firm limits.
  • Recognize that disruptive behaviors are often the result of trauma.
  • Provide opportunities where youth can safely talk abut experience.
  • Help youth become re-engaged in school.
  • Anticipate reminders of traumatic events and provide support.
  • Teach techniques to help overwhelming feelings.
  • Get youth involved in positive causes.
In addition, the National Association of School Social Workers and the American Counseling Association provide specific roles  that  school counselors and school social workers should play in order to reduce gang involvement.  
  • Become knowledgeable about the warning signs of youth gang involvement. Look for gang signs and symbols.  Some of these signs include:
  1. Tattoos (see Prison Tattoo Field Guide and generic identifiers for more explanations of gang tattoos).
  2. Graffiti (see Gang Graffiti 101)
  3. Gang related art
  • Provide information and support to parents.
  • Implement an awareness program.
  • Offer direct help and resources to students.
  • Target the gang prospects by offering these students alternative ways to spend their time and create a life outside of the gang. Experts believe you may only have six months or less to show them the advantages of leaving the gang.
  • Advocate for policies inside schools.
  • Collaborate with outside agencies.

Warning: Flipping Out a Gang Member

There are many reasons why people leave gangs. Some of these reasons include:

  • Growing older and the gang doesn’t meet their needs.
  • Getting married and/or getting a job.
  • Becoming a parent.
  • Disagreeing with the activities/beliefs of the gang.
Of course it is our desire for youths to leave gangs!! However, if you are working with a student to help him or her leave a gang, aka flipping, there are some things you want to keep in mind:
1.  When a youth leaves the gang, he or she must be educated about healthy relationships. If a student’s needs are not met when leaving the gang, he or she may return to the only type of relationships he or she knows.
2.  Relocating students is not always the answer to leaving the gang. Students can take their problems with them to their new location and connect with another gang.
3.  Ask the student what happens if he or she leaves.  Can they fade out or is there a ritual (beating)?
4.  It is important to be real about the expectations of what will happen if he or she decides to leave the group.
5.  Do not make the decision for them to leave; they must make their own decision.
6.  Talk about a safety plan and involve other professionals in this plan. 
7.  Encourage students to complete their education as this increases the opportunity for students to want to leave.
Gangs 101

My Experience with Gang Members

Since I have been a school counselor, I have had several students involved in gangs.  I want to share stories about two of my students.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a gang member.  He was born into the gang and his family was heavily involved in drug dealing.  We never spoke about the gang, but I knew he was involved due to comments he would make about fighting other students for disrespecting him or his boys.  Often, he was suspended for fighting, constantly hung out in the bathroom, and he was failing most of his courses. When we would meet to discuss his graduation plans, his parents would never attend the meetings and he would change the subject to other topics. Often he would talk about his beliefs and philosophies like how the world would end when aliens attacked our planet, how his boys would take over the school, or how stupid the police and the administrators at the school were in their decision making.  However, he always came to see me and we formed a good relationship.  I always tried to encourage him to finish school and go to school to pursue his passion for cars.  During his last year of high school,  he was expelled for drugs and was forced to move (I am not sure if he graduated).

A second gang member was a girl who was initiated in the gang by sex. She was a sweet young lady, but involved with a group of boys in another county.  Eventually, she ran away from home and joined the gang full time. Fortunately, she was found by the police and returned home to her concerned mom.  Being fearful she would return to the gang, her mother sent her to live in another state with relatives. I asked her to email me and let me know how she was doing in her new school. Her involvement in a gang has made me more aware of girl gang involvement which has increased sharply in recent years.

Girl Gang Involvement

Want to Know More?

If you really want to see the underworld of gang life, I encourage you to check out History Channel’s tv series, Gangland.  Also, check out Gangs 101, Idaho Gangs and the Gang Library from the Washington/Baltimore area for information on the structure, recruitment strategies, and information about major gangs in the US. In addition, I have included more resources for you to view if you want to learn more about youth gangs.


National Mentoring Conference Summit
January 28-30, 2015
Washington, D.C.

At Risk Youth National Conference
February 15-18, 2015
Myrtle Beach, SC

National Conference on Bullying
February 25-27, 2015
Orlando, FL

Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Students
May 7-8, 2015
Seattle, WA

National Gang Crime Research Center Conference
August 10-12, 2015
Chicago Westin Hotel

Crimes Against Children Conference
August 10-13, 2015
Dallas, TX


School-Police Partnership-January 14, 2015-3:00 pm.


Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere-includes training and resources for educators.


Gang Intervention on Steve Wilkos

Ain’t No Deny’n-Gangs and Violence

PBS Video on One Man’s Journey From Gangs to Academia


Gang Colors Seminar, Lisa Taylor-Austin, Gang Counselor

Resources for Schools

School Gang Brochure -Township High School District 211

Gang Card for Parents



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