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Gang Involvement (see data for this topic)

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Why This Topic Is Important
While youth involved in gangs comprise only a small portion of the adolescent population, gang membership is a significant threat to youth health and well being (1). Recent data indicate that there are an estimated 850,000 gang members in the U.S, with most joining between ages 11-15 (1, 2). Nearly one in five U.S. 6th-12th grade students report that their school has gangs (1). Gang members are responsible for the majority of serious violence committed by youth, and they are more likely to bring weapons to school than other youth (3). The latest National Youth Gang Survey found that gang-related homicides increased by 20% between 2011 and 2012 (2). Youth involved in gangs also are more likely to abuse substances, engage in high risk sexual behavior, drop out of school, and have unstable employment (1).

The effects of gang activity extend beyond the individuals involved. For example, when youth are exposed to violence or feel unsafe at school, it can negatively affect their health and well being as well as their academic performance (3, 4). Communities also can be affected in terms of reduced quality of life, increased crime, families moving out of neighborhoods, and economic costs, e.g., losses in property values, local businesses, and tax revenue (1).

For more information on gang involvement, see’s Research & Links section.
Sources for this narrative:

1.  Ritter, N., et al. (2013). Changing course: Preventing gang membership. National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from:

2.  Egley, A., et al. (2014). Highlights of the 2012 National Youth Gang Survey. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from:

3.  Austin, G., et al. (2013). Guidebook to the California Healthy Kids Survey. Part II: Survey content – core module. 2013-14 Edition. WestEd. Retrieved from:

4.  U.S. Department of Education. (n.d.). Working to keep schools and communities safe. Retrieved from:
Policy Implications
Policymakers across the state and nation are taking action to combat youth gang activity. The most effective approaches go beyond law enforcement and gang suppression to comprehensive prevention strategies that address the individual, family, school, and community risk factors associated with gang involvement (1, 2). Early prevention is critical, as most youth who join gangs become members between ages 11 and 15 (1).

According to research and subject experts, policy options that could prevent gang involvement include:
  • Supporting evidence-based programs that strengthen parenting, family support, and family functioning (e.g., warm bonds, consistent discipline, regular monitoring, strong social networks), such as programs that provide support to low-income pregnant mothers and families with young children (1, 2, 4)
  • Ensuring that schools assess gang problems and engage families and community partners to create safe, supportive school climates, which are linked to lower rates of violence, improved academic performance, and other positive outcomes (1, 3, 4)
  • Supporting school-wide programs that help all students build social-emotional skills, such as problem-solving and conflict resolution skills (1, 3, 4)
  • Promoting implementation of non-punitive school discipline policies that are clear, fair, consistent, and promote a positive learning environment; such policies should be based on a tiered system of appropriate responses to misconduct that keep students in school when possible, and they should include clear, equitable classroom behavior management practices. This should involve regular training and support for all school staff. (2, 3)
  • Supporting coordinated community efforts to build on neighborhood strengths and provide youth with positive, supervised activities, such as tutoring, mentoring, after-school programs, life-skills training, and recreational activities (1, 2, 4)

Additional policy options include supporting evidence-based, data-driven, comprehensive community gang intervention strategies tailored to neighborhood needs. A plan that includes prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies should be carefully developed, implemented, and evaluated. These efforts should be based on cross-sector community partnerships and operate in concert with law enforcement responses to serious gang activity (1, 2, 4).
For more policy ideas related to youth gang involvement, visit the National Gang Center. Also see Policy Implications on under these topics: Truancy, Suspensions & Expulsions; School Safety; Bullying/Harassment at School; and Juvenile Arrests.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Ritter, N., et al. (2013). Changing course: Preventing gang membership. National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from:

2.  Howell, J. C. (2010). Gang prevention: An overview of research and programs. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved from:

3.  Morgan, E., et al. (2014). The school discipline consensus report: Strategies from the field to keep students engaged in school and out of the juvenile justice system. The Council of State Governments Justice Center. Retrieved from:

4.  David-Ferdon C., & Simon T.R. (2014). Preventing youth violence: Opportunities for action. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from:

How Children Are Faring
In 2011-13, 8% of 7th, 9th, and 11th graders in California reported that they consider themselves gang members. A higher percentage -- 13% -- was reported among non-traditional students, i.e., those enrolled in Community Day Schools or Continuation Education. Greater percentages of male students reported that they considered themselves gang members than their female peers in 2011-13. In addition, more reports of gang membership were found among students who reported feeling less connected to their schools. Among racial/ethnic groups, higher percentages of African American/Black students report that they considered themselves members of a gang than students in other groups.

About 14% of staff at California public elementary, middle, high school, K-12, and non-traditional schools reported that gang-related activity was a "moderate" or "severe" problem at their school.