Watching kids being tempted by gangs

By “Miss Nelson”,
Salem Elementary Teacher,

During lunch today, an instructional assistant went to my classroom looking for me. She wanted to let me know that during recess one of my students had told her about his teenage sister. A sister, who he confided, had been tormenting his mother and himself, and had been writing gang signs on his back.

My first year of teaching I would have probably started crying shortly after realizing that one of my students was being recruited into a violent gang by his older sister. Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised. Although the gangs in my school’s boundaries are nothing compared to the kids of gangs that schools in California face, they are bad enough to require that elementary age students sign out to go to the bathroom so that we can match their handwriting to the gang signs and death threats that are scrawled on the bathroom walls. These incidents significantly increase when gang members are released from prison and head back to their old haunts to recruit young kids.

Students like my little guy, are particularly vulnerable because he struggles in school, and gangs can feel easier, safer, and less challenging that schools—especially when these students frequently move schools and are chronically absent. It is painful to watch a nice student who is struggling slowly become morphed and molded into a cynical and cruel unrecognizable version of themselves.

Even with all of the interventions available through the Department of Human Services, onsite counselors, and law enforcement, some students still get pulled down and away from the hope-filled futures that we all wish for our students. The happy ending for my student this year, is that he was only retelling what had happened to him last year, before his sister went to Juvenile Hall, and he feels safer this year. What would it take for all students to have a happy ending?

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