Creating A Different Kind Of ‘Gang’ To Reach Students

More authentic and diverse in-school social groups can engage challenging, hard-to-reach students in powerful ways.

Connecting With Hard-To-Reach Students Through In-School Social Groups

contributed by David Spellmon

We already have plenty of gangs on our campus as I’m typing this, but you may not consider them ‘gangs.’ We have: The Debate team, afterschool STEM programs, Band, Student Government Organization (SGA), National Honor Society (NHS), DECA, Anime club, Athletic teams, Drama club, Photography club, Key club, etc.

Now, I know what you’re thinking gangs are usually a group of young people mostly boys who are participating in negative and illegal activities. If you look at the definitions of the words gang, club, and organization there isn’t much of a difference. One definition from Merriam-Webster defines ‘gang’ as a group of persons working together, and one definition from defines ‘gang’ as a group of people with compatible tastes or mutual interests who gather for social reasons. Of course, there are negative connotations for ‘gang.’ One definition from Merriam-Webster defines ‘club’ as an association of persons for some common object usually jointly support and meeting periodically. Lastly, ‘organization’ is defined as an organized body of people with a particular purpose, especially a business, society, association, etc. 

Just like the definitions of gang, club, and organization the reasons why a young person may join one of these groups are similar. Finding a place of acceptance, being with a group of like-minded individuals, and setting themselves up for a better future. Let me explain: those students who are joining the debate teams, SGAs, athletic teams, and the usual groups on campus are most likely thinking about the opportunities that could come by standing out on a college application, potentially getting scholarships, or furthering their interests in said club. 

Those students who engage in those negative street-based gangs–whether by choice or not–have grown up in an environment where illegal activities may be the norm and may look up to the ones who get fast money. The media plays a part too–think about the ways certain groups are portrayed. These students may already feel like excelling in school and going to college are not a part of their reality, so their futures are based on getting money by any means for financial stability or a wrongheaded sense of respect. Also, if they feel like the educators at school don’t care about them, what happens when the people who show them the most affection are doing negative things? We must understand that attention is the currency of today’s youth, and they do not care about the ways in which they get it. So why not create ways for them to earn that currency in positive ways?

So why do we need more ‘gangs’ in school? First, let go of your savior complex because many of these students do not need saving. They are some of the most resilient students on your campus. Most of us would struggle too if we had to switch lives with some of our students given their circumstances. What creating more gangs on campus can do is give those students desperately needed positive attention. 

One of the main reasons why students join the negative gangs is the attention and perceived love they get from those individuals. Once again, the definitions of gang, club, and organization are basically the same! Why not create clubs or organizations the students you know will never participate in those traditional ones can appreciate and you can build a sense of community. Some clubs or gangs that my students have mentioned: an NBA 2k/Madden/Fortnite (video games), Lyricist Lounge (working on creating raps and spoken word), Pop Culture Trivia, Intramural Sports League (for those who are ineligible to play for the school), a Dance Club designed around social media dance challenges, and a school Entertainment/Fashion magazine or Podcast. 

Once you create these activities and get buy-in from those students interested you can then negotiate behavioral expectations and academic requirements for membership. You can also tie in a tutoring component to offer more academic support. We are reaching those students who need extra support but framing it in a way that will bridge school and their personal interests. There is also a great opportunity to repair those tarnished relationships with their parents/guardians because they have most likely experienced similar negative interactions during their schooling years. When students become excited to participate in the newly formed clubs (gangs), it gives educators chances to call and brag on their child versus the typical calls for undesired behaviors! 

As many of us prepare to return to schools and campuses, we know one of the biggest impacts on our students through the pandemic was the lack of social interactions. We constantly hear about the ‘learning loss’ but equally important is the loss of social development. More authentic and diverse social groups are not going to solve every issue, but students are going to need a version of school that is more interactive and engaging than the Pre-COVID era.