Youth on violence: Aid youth to reject the allure of gangs

Too much denial that threat exists

August 12, 2012 

Amanda Hancock

As students mockingly twist and contort their fingers to form the word "Bloods," as janitors cover up colorful symbols adorning cafeteria garbage cans, and as more fights break out in high school hallways, the real issue gets pushed farther under the rug.

We can continue to speak about gangs in hushed tones, becoming numb to their real and deadly impacts, but they will continue to create violence and harm for young people until we take the time to deem them a concern.

We've come a long way since the 1990s, when bringing up the fact that gangs exist was taboo. However, identifying gang activity remains a complicated task, says Lexington police commander Lawrence Weathers.

"It's hard to say what is a gang, what's just gang-associated and what is a whole gang disorder," he said.

According to Weathers, gang-related violence in Lexington is not at a concerning level, but he says there are gang members in every area high school.

"I'm not naïve, I've seen the graffiti myself," he said.

Young people who are not in gangs see the graffiti, too. I see it. And we don't talk about it or consider it a huge deal because our parents, teachers and city officials either just don't tell us or don't see it that way themselves.

In the recent Lexington Youth Initiative Survey, a high number of high school and middle school males ranked a "safe place to hang out" as a need in their communities.

That survey also mentions that in national research related to gang membership conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, youth gang members listed "protection" as their No. 1 reason for joining a gang while "fun" and "respect" were listed second and third among motivations for gang membership.

Weathers agrees, saying that many young people join gangs because that's the only option they have.

It's time to give young people who grow up in low-income, high-crime areas of Lexington another option before they are innocently tugged to a life of street violence.

In Lexington and across the nation, the inability of city officials to protect both the young people who join gangs and those who fall victim to a gang's violence is a problem worth improving.

But the answer is not more police. It's not about more arrests or more prisons.

The solution might be giving young people what they crave: a safe place. Weathers says prevention and education are the main tactics in fighting gang activity such as providing young people with mentors, extra curricular activities and resource centers.

But it's not just a one person or one organization effort, he said. "Don't kid yourself; this is something the whole community has to be on guard about," said Weathers.

But first, the whole community needs to be in the position and take steps to fight a deep-rooted issue. The whole Lexington community needs to find a way to invest in strategies and genuinely invest in young people.

Clearly, the current system is flawed.

It's flawed when we don't yet know how to prevent a high school student from being in a gang. It's flawed when this is still such a fuzzy topic for Lexington police.

So why not have a DARE-type program focused on educating and preventing gang involvement? There have been some officers in high schools addressing gangs, so why not add more?

Pushing this issue off until later won't suffice.

Today, as for the past decade, we're confronted with a choice on how to handle an issue that is constantly misperceived.

We can produce more violent results, more repression and more lost youth.

Or we can bring gang youth to the table and work to create jobs and training, providing real options for meaningful work and healthy families. In other words, we can try to prevent these issues at the core, working to eliminate the reasons young people join gangs in the first place.

One choice will worsen the violence and terror; the other will help bring peace, both in the streets of Lexington and among its impressionable students.

Amanda Hancock, 19, is a Dunbar High School alum and will be a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She is studying journalism and runs distance events for the cross country and track teams.

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