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Federal Report on Gang Increase Met With Caution

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The results of a new federal survey that indicates gangs in schools are on the rise should be viewed with caution, some educators said last week.

"I'm not surprised [by the findings], but I'm not alarmed," said Gwendolyn J. Cooke, the director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va.

The survey of some 10,000 students ages 12 to 19 was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The report, released April 12, found that the percentage of students reporting the presence of street gangs at their schools nearly doubled from 1989 to 1995, increasing from 16.4 percent to 30.6 percent. The increase was reported in all types of communities: central cities, suburbs, and nonmetropolitan areas.

"I don't know that you can put much validity in such a survey," said Ms. Cooke, a former principal in the Baltimore school system. "We are now labeling certain behavior as being in a gang that we didn't label in the past."

Although she doesn't deny the existence of violent gangs, Ms. Cooke said that not all group behavior by students connotes gang activity.

"We need to look at definitions," she added. "Do kids understand what a street gang is?"

The survey did not supply respondents with a definition.

"We're struggling with what the definition of what a gang is," said Kathryn A. Chandler, an NCES statistician and a co-author of the report. "What might be a gang in Virginia may not be somewhere else."

Part of an NCES study next year will be devoted to an analysis of what constitutes a gang, she added.

Students 'Adrift'

Confusion over the definition of gangs may account for one reason why students reported more of them in 1995 than in 1989, Ms. Chandler said. Other possible reasons, she said, are that gangs may indeed be more prevalent and that increased media coverage of gangs has made students more aware of them.

To some educators, the report points to broad issues that schools ought to be concerned about.

"We have a lot of kids who are somewhat adrift in their lives," said Gary Marx, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington, Va. "This should cause an alarm to sound for educators to accelerate efforts in their communities and to look more closely at how we are nurturing our kids."

Schools should ask themselves what they are doing to address gang problems and whether the programs and policies now in place are adequate, said Bill Modzeleski, the director of the safe and drug-free schools program in the Education Department.

"Any time you have illegal activity going on and education is hindered because of that activity, we have to be concerned," Mr. Modzeleski said.

The study also found an apparent link between the presence of gangs in schools and school violence. Of the students who reported no street gangs in their schools in 1995, 2.9 percent said they had been violently victimized in school, compared with 7.5 percent of students who had reported gangs in their school.

Among the report's other findings:

  • The prevalence of violent student victimization at school rose from 1989 to 1995. In 1989, 3.4 percent of students said they had either suffered a physical attack or had property taken from them by force, weapon, or threat. In 1995, the figure was 4.2 percent.
  • Some 63.2 percent of students reported that marijuana, cocaine, crack, and other drugs were available at school in 1989. That figure rose to 65.3 percent in 1995.
  • Less than one-half of 1 percent of students reported taking a gun to school in 1995, while 5.3 percent reported seeing another student with a gun at school.

Although the study looked at student perspectives at two points in time, the report cautions readers not to assume that the points represent a stable trend.

Ms. Chandler of the nces said the report "may be a battle cry for states and local agencies to begin to collect their own data."

The data collected at the state and local levels could then be used to compare their situation with that of the nation, she said.

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