Teens from high-risk neighborhoods who are able to resist street gang recruitment tend to have one thing in common: a caring teacher and/or adult in their lives. This is according to a new study led by Gabriel Merrin, a doctoral candidate in child development at the University of Illinois.
The study examined the individual, peer, family, school, and neighborhood factors associated with young people who resist the magnetic pull of street gangs. Merrin discovered that kids who decline gang membership are one and a half times more likely to perceive fair treatment by their teachers and other school personnel and to report having at least one adult in their lives they can depend on to help with their problems.
While many studies have looked at the risk factors associated with gang involvement, Merrin said he believes his study is only the second to explore the risk and protective factors associated with youths who were targeted for recruitment but resisted joining street gangs.
“Researchers don’t really talk about the individuals who have resisted membership as a way to better understand the youth gang phenomena, and that’s one of the things I’m really proud of about the paper,” Merrin said. “We know that some of these individuals who face similar risks as their peers choose not to join gangs, and I want to better understand these individuals and identify some key protective elements.”
Merrin found that 5.6 percent (973 youths) of the more than 15,700 participants reported that they had been asked or pressured to join a gang but declined. About 3.6 percent (625 youths) of the participants, reported being current or former gang members.
Many of the kids who resisted recruitment were exposed to the same risk factors as their peers who became gang members, including alcohol or drug use, dysfunctional families, and residing in chaotic, dangerous neighborhoods.
However, those who resisted pressure to join were one and a half times more likely to say they receive fair treatment from their teachers and school staff and that they have at least one adult in their lives they can depend on for help with their problems, Merrin found.
The paper highlights the overwhelming importance of positive educational experiences and supportive relationships with teachers and other adults as buffers against the influences that lure youth into gang affiliation.
Merrin, who grew up in a high-risk neighborhood, believes his high school teachers and counselors played a large role in steering him away from the lure of gangs and in the right direction.
Recognizing his potential, Merrin’s football coach and some guidance counselors at his school encouraged him to concentrate on sports and academics. They also urged him to envision a future that included going to college.
“They encouraged me to stay in school, and I trusted them, so I threw myself into school, not knowing where it would take me,” Merrin said. “When I left high school, I was running in search of a better life with more certainty and opportunities.”
“I have a perspective that’s a little bit different from some people, and I can relate to some of the students and speak to them in their own language,” Merrin said. “I try to have a dialogue with them, listen to them, learn their truths without judgment, and offer some suggestions that worked for me when I was facing similar situations.”
“It helps when someone that looks like them with similar lived experiences is standing there and saying, ‘Look, regardless of your current situation, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel. You can still engage in education, get out of the gang, and have a productive, high-quality life,'” Merrin said.
The study is published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.