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Another path: Can school-based gang prevention programs show youth a way out?

In many Oakland middle schools, students are regularly sent out of class for wearing red, black, or blue. If you want to know why, just ask one of their classmates – each color represents one of three neighborhood gangs. Blue is worn by Sureños, red by Norteños, and black by Border Brothers. Gang culture permeates day-to-day life for many Oakland residents, and, with the average recruitment age for gang membership being 14, no one knows this better than the city’s 7th and 8th graders.

Gang prevention is a central focus for middle schools in Oakland and across the country. Many gang prevention programs exist but very few are rigorously evaluated. Are these programs actually effective?

In “Short- and Long- Term Outcome Results from a Multisite Evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. Program,” published in the journal Criminology and Public Policy, a team of authors evaluates the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program. G.R.E.A.T. is a school-based gang-prevention program that encourages youth to avoid gang membership, prevent violence and criminal activity, and develop positive relationships with police officers.

The study pulled data from seven major US cities on 3,820 students in 31 different schools. In each school, approximately half of the students were randomly assigned access to G.R.E.A.T., while half received no intervention. The authors examined the differences in long-term outcomes (defined as up to four years post-program completion) between students who enrolled in the program and those who did not.

The authors looked at student-reported outcomes before and after participating in G.R.E.A.T. They compared these outcomes with those of students who were not randomly assigned to participate in the program. The authors examined 33 factors related to gang activity including gang affiliation, general delinquency, violent offending, and attitudes toward the police.

The likelihood of gang involvement during the four years immediately following enrollment in the program was 24 percent lower for students enrolled in the program.

They found that the likelihood of gang involvement during the four years immediately following enrollment in the program was 24 percent lower for students enrolled in the program. In addition, attitudes toward the police were more positive among those enrolled in G.R.E.A.T.

Yet the authors failed to find a long-term difference between those enrolled in the program and those who were not when looking at factors such as resistance to peer pressure and association with delinquent peers. These results are disappointing because such factors are strong predictors of future criminal activity.

So, does the G.R.E.A.T. program work? The results of their analysis lead the authors to conclude that the program is promising. Students who are enrolled have a more positive attitude toward the police and a lower probability of gang membership – no small feat for a program that consists of only thirteen lessons taught for forty minutes each.

Despite hopeful results, it is important to keep in mind who is being studied – and who is not. The G.R.E.A.T. program requires guardian consent, so students who were assigned to G.R.E.A.T. classrooms but did not receive consent from their guardians (approximately 20 percent study-wide) were not included in the study. The need for consent potentially biases this study, since youths whose guardians allow them to participate may systematically differ from youths who were not allowed to participate. Nevertheless, this study gives policy makers and school administrators a good sense of how the G.R.E.A.T. program can work for students whose guardians allow them to participate.

As long as gangs continue to be a strong force in many communities, schools will be clamoring for programs such as G.R.E.A.T. If these programs are going to continue to serve as a major way that schools address gang issues, they must be quantitatively evaluated. Our children deserve a world without gangs. We can’t give them that yet, but we can give them schools where the gang prevention programs are working.

Finn-Aage Esbensen, D. Wayne Osgood, Dana Peterson, Terrance J. Taylor, and Dena C. Carson, 'Short- and Long-Term Outcome Results from a Multisite Evaluation of the G.R.E.A.T. Program', Criminology and Public Policy 12, No. 3 (Aug 2013): 375-411.

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