Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Due Process and Student Safety

Gangs in one form or another have been around for hundreds of years. Pirates
were probably known as one of the original bad gangs. The groups that traditionally
come to mind when one thinks of modern day gangs are the Crips and the Bloods.
Wigton (1998) states that oftentimes, young peripheral or associate gang members get
their first exposure to the gang culture through various aspects of the media--news shows,
movies, videos, and even through the music of various artists. Some music and movies
tend to glamorize the gang lifestyle. Many kids who gravitate to gangs do so out of a
need to belong to something and for the power that is gained from being in a gang.
Today’s society makes alternative lifestyles appear very appealing.

Children are our greatest asset. Unfortunately, they are becoming a common statistic of crime related events. School violence involving gangs is a serious problem, especially in public schools. Improving the quality of American education becomes a very difficult task when gang violence is attached to the situation. Violence committed by gangs includes theft, bullying and intimidation, gun use, assault, rape, murder, and kidnapping. Violence is perpetrated against students, teachers, and staff. Wigton (1998) explained that gang violence may also range from intentional vendettas to accidental killings of bystanders. Crime and violence in schools threaten the well-being of young people and staff members.

A study on security in Durban schools found that schools are places where drugs, thugs, and weapons move as freely through the gates as the pupils (Griggs, 1998). Despite national efforts to restore a culture of learning and teaching, incidents of theft, vandalism, burglary, rape and even murder are reported occurring on school grounds. Crime and violence contaminates the school environment and jeopardizes the educational process. There can be serious long-standing physical, emotional and psychological implications for both teachers and pupils including: distress, reduced self-esteem, risk of depression and suicide, reduced school attendance, impaired concentration, fear and a diminished ability to learn (Griggs, 1998). However, according to Essex (2004) the percentage of students who reported the presence of street gang violence in their schools has decreased from 28 percent in 1989 to 17 percent in 1999.

With the presence of gangs in schools, school leaders are encountering pressure from all stake holders to provide a safe caring environment where teaching and learning can occur without fear. Since schools are considered to be safe places, failure to provide a safe environment can prove to be costly if evidence revels that principals and official leaders failed to act responsibly in providing protection for students and staff members. Gangs have distinguishing characteristics that identify their union aside of other gangs. Gangs are best described as groups of individuals involved in unusually close social relationships. They share common collective identity expressed through a gang name. They also adopt specific symbols or signs and claim control over a certain turf or territory. Gang members are typically young teenage males of similar ethnic or racial background. Loyalty is expressed through adherence to a strict code. Camaraderie is solidified through participation in group activities that are often antisocial, illegal, or violent, and criminal. The chain of command is hierarchical and respected by the members. Presently, many gang members have changed their appearance to professional sports team jackets, caps, and T-shirts making it difficulty to identify individual members (Essex, 2004).

Gangs are forces that are challenging schools and communities across the nation. School safety and discipline have always been a concern, but the increase in frequency and degree of school violence has brought this issue to the forefront in the past twenty years. During the 1970's, Congress began to look at the issue of school violence. Reforms such as conflict resolution, mediation, and state reform academies appeared during this time. Phillip (1999) notes that as our society continues to change, so does the role and responsibility of the public schools. Schools will have to look for creative ways to facilitate discipline and to stop violence. Critical to the development of safer schools for our children is a connection between local systems, counties, and states. Griggs (1998) reported, as we move toward national standards for achievement, we need to demonstrate a consistent commitment to safe schools for all children. Many efforts are going on across the country, but there must be greater communication. School and systems will waste time and other valuable resources by attempting to create what works instead of searching for all ready existing programs or strategies that would meet their needs. As the violence in our schools increases, so does the urgency of developing initiatives to counter it.

One of the forces that threaten school safety can be traced to the lack or breakdown of connections in the family and community. Of the successful methods for dealing with these disconnections, the underlying component is increased involvement among members of the school community. Wigton (1998) indicate that schools must foster bonds between the staff and students, and between schools and families. Academic goals should be the primary focus, but stronger relationships will advance schools to these goals. Schools that do not recognize the importance of building such connections will be undermining their own safety reform efforts. Griggs, (1998) has found that a negative or even adversarial relationship between students and their schools will work against attempts to make them feel safe in school.

Schools must also work with outside agencies to develop ways to meet the needs that foster violence. For example, biological factors or stressors were mentioned as an explanation for increased youth crime. Schools must work with community support systems such as Departments of Social Services, Mental Health Agencies, etc. to understand the manifestations of such factors and to develop plans for pooling resources to deal with the factors and neutralize or reverse their effects.


Essex, N. (2004). School law and the public schools: A practical guide for educational leaders (3rd ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Griggs, R. (1998), Learners at Risk: The Security Situation in Durban Schools, Durban, Independent Projects Trust.

Phillip, B. (1999), Violence in South African township schools – an exploration. Honors research dissertation. Institute of Criminology, UCT, Cape Town.

Wigton, A. (1998), Firearm-related injuries in Cape Town children and youth 1992 – 1996, Child Health Policy Unit, UCT, Cape Town.