By Steve Thomas
Observer Nevis Editor
(Nevis) – There are lots of things that make secondary school special: friendships, activities and athletics are among them. However, there is one thing found at the Charlestown Secondary School and the Gingerland Secondary School that take away from that special aura: gang graffiti.
Police acknowledge the presence of gangs in the Federation and have said that gang activity has been linked to a number of crimes, including murder.
What police and school officials also say is that while there are signs of gangs in schools – the way some young men dress and presence of graffiti at numerous sites are cited as examples – what they cannot accurately judge is how much of the a real problem the signs represent.
“We just don’t know,” one school official said. Gang members commonly use graffiti to communicate their presence or intentions.
A gang marking on a public place can mark that area as a particular gang’s territory. Defacing another gang’s graffiti can be interpreted as a sign of hostility or disrespect. Graffiti can also be used to communicate a gang’s activities, for example, if a gang deals drugs.
The problem of understanding how much gangs have penetrated schools is not unique to the Federation.
National School Safety and Security Services is a USA-based firm that deals in education security issues. It is a private company that looks at the problems of violence in schools, gangs and related matters.
The company’s literature points out the difficulty of knowing how deeply gangs have penetrated a school:
“Gangs thrive on anonymity, denial, and lack of awareness by school personnel. The gang member whose notebook graffiti goes unaddressed today may be involved in initiations, assaults, and drug sales in school in the near future,” according to National School Safety. It continues:
“The condition that makes the school environment most ripe for gang activity is denial. The most common initial response to gangs in almost all communities and schools is denial because public officials are more focused on image concerns for their organizations while they should be focusing on dealing with the problem. The longer they deny, the more entrenched the problem becomes and in the end, the worse their image will be.
“Even when school and community officials come out of denial and acknowledge a gang presence, they tend to downplay it and do a “qualified admittance” of the problem. They acknowledge it when they can’t deny it any longer, but even then they tend to downplay it and underestimate the extent of a problem. They only people those who play this political game fool in the long run is themselves because the longer they deny and downplay the problem, the worse it becomes, and the bigger gang problem – and image problem – they will face in the end.
“The flip side of the issue is that we also do not want to overstate the problem in a school or community, put people in unnecessary fear, or give the gangs more credit and status than they want to claim for themselves. The majority of kids in a given school are not in a gang and do not want gang activity in their schools. The problem, though, is that a small number of gang members, along with their associates outside of the school, can account for a very significant amount of violence in a very short period of time if their activities go unaddressed.”
The company offers ideas on managing and preventing gangs in schools:
“School and community responses require a balanced approach of prevention, intervention, and enforcement strategies. Schools must work very closely with law enforcement to share information on gang activity since what happens in the community spills over into the schools and vice versa.
“Practical steps schools can take include:
-Communicate to staff, students, and parents that schools are neutral grounds and that gang, drug, and weapon activities will receive priority response
-Apply discipline in a timely, firm, fair, and consistent manner
-Institute student anti-gang education and prevention programs
-Establish a mechanism for student conflict mediation
-Train school personnel and parents in gang identification, intervention, and prevention techniques
-Obtain input from youth on violence-related concerns and prevention strategies
-Establish cooperative relationships and communication networks with parents, law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies, social services, and other community members. Set up mechanisms and structures to promote information-sharing and coordination among agencies addressing youth, gangs, and related public safety efforts. “Gangs are a community problem, but schools are a part of that community and cannot operate in isolation while hoping that the gang members will drop their gang alliances and activities once they cross the schoolhouse door.”