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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 in the U.S. (1). The majority of youth who join gangs do so between the ages of 11 and 15, and nearly one in five students in grades 6 to 12 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 (2). Youth involved in gangs also are more likely to drop out of school, abuse substances, engage in high risk sexual behavior, and experience employment instability (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 (2, 3). 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 student gang involvement, see’s Research & Links section.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Simon, T. R., et al. (Eds.). (2013). Changing course: Preventing gang membership. National Institute of Justice & National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Retrieved from:

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

3.  National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. (n.d.). Topics and research: Safety. 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 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).

Policy options that could prevent gang involvement include:
  • Supporting evidence-based programs that strengthen parenting, family support, and family functioning (e.g., warm family bonds, consistent child supervision and discipline, and strong social networks), including early prevention 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 should include clear, equitable classroom behavior management practices (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)
  • Implementing evidence-based, data-driven, comprehensive gang intervention strategies tailored to community needs and based on cross-sector community partnerships operating in concert with law enforcement; these should include prevention, intervention, and suppression efforts that are carefully developed, implemented, and evaluated (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: School Attendance and Discipline, School Safety, Bullying and Harassment at School, and Juvenile Arrests.

Sources for this narrative:

1.  Simon, T. R., et al. (Eds.). (2013). Changing course: Preventing gang membership. National Institute of Justice & National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Retrieved from:

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

How Children Are Faring
In 2015-2017, fewer than 1 in 20 California 7th, 9th, and 11th graders considered themselves gang members, down from more than 1 in 15 in 2011-2013. Students in non-traditional programs, students with lower levels of school connectedness, male students, and students whose parents had lower levels of education were more likely to be involved with gangs than their peers in other groups. Asian youth had the lowest rates of gang involvement (4%) among racial/ethnic groups with data in 2015-2017, while African American/black youth had the highest (8%). Reports of gang membership also tended to be lower for straight students in comparison with students who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and those unsure of their sexual orientation.

School staff reports from 2015-2017 show that gang-related activity was a moderate or severe problem according to 2% of responses by elementary school staff, 9% of responses by middle school staff, 13% of responses by high school staff, and 31% of responses by non-traditional program staff statewide.