After record-low gang activity during the early 2000s, gang prevalence and activity have spiked nationally over the past several years, according to a report released in May by the National Gang Center, a government organization.
Gangs were active in 34.5 percent of police jurisdictions polled, and the center estimates that there are 731,000 gang members in 28,100 gangs. In 2001, only 23.9 percent of jurisdictions reported gang activity.
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Joe Mollnar, senior director of delinquency and gang initiatives for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, says most gangs recruit their newest and youngest members before they enter high school.
Gang-related violence occurred in about 16 percent of public high schools during the 2009-2010 school year, according to a school violence report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), also released in May. Nearly 40 percent of public high school administrators polled say they believe gang activities—whether violent or not—take place at their schools.
While schools can serve as a recruiting ground for new members, Mollnar says teachers and principals can help get students out of bad situations, prevent them from joining gangs, or help people like him identify gang members for possible inclusion in anti-gang programs. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America runs or helps run more than 4,000 community-based programs for youth nationwide—about 600 have anti-gang programs.
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"We've got to get schools involved in prevention because they've got these kids for a while each day," he says. "They can play a vital role with us as far as the referral of these individuals."
One of those individuals is Jackie Ybarra, a 22-year-old former gang member from Fort Worth. She spent most of her teen years in a gang, but quit after attending one of the Boys & Girls Clubs' after-school gang prevention programs. Now, she helps run the program.
The programs focus on keeping gang members and potential gang members busy. They provide GED (General Educational Development) classes to high school dropouts, homework help for students, and counseling for students feeling pressure from their gangs. Most importantly, many use reformed gang members that can relate to the pressures students are experiencing.
Ybarra says that without the Boys & Girls Clubs program, she wouldn't have graduated from high school. Now she serves as a "bridge" to help younger students remove themselves from gangs. "While I was in school, nobody really pushed me to go to class or told me to do my homework," she says.
With the help of schools, Boys & Girls Clubs throughout the country attract at-risk youth to the programs by holding community events, such as a cookout or kickball game. Students often attend club meetings to participate in some of the free activities, like sports games and art projects. Many students' attitudes towards school work and their futures change when they realize that they are receiving positive attention from an adult, Mollnar says.
Many of the programs have members of rival gangs, but Mollnar says that students know after-school meetings are peaceful places.
"They understand that as long as they're in the clubs, there's no colors, no gangs, no fighting," he says. "They respect that and they respect each other. They know they've got something good going here, and they don't want to wreck it."
The key to removing a child from a gang is realizing that there is no quick fix, Ybarra, the former gang member, says. Mentors realize that gang members pressure each other to stay in the gang, and getting out of them isn't always easy.
"It took me a while to completely pull away from the gang," Ybarra says. But because many of the mentors are ex-gang members, they know what a student is going through and won't give up on them. "My mentor was the only stable person I had. Without him, I'm pretty sure I would not have graduated. I was on a downhill path."