According to the National Gang Threat Assessment 2009 conducted by the National Gang Intelligence Center (January 2009), gang membership in the United States was estimated to have reached 1 million members as of September 2008, based on analysis of federal, state, and local law enforcement reporting. This represented an increase of over 100,000 new members over three years. The study attributes this rapid increase in gang membership to two major factors: the result of gang recruitment efforts and the release of incarcerated gang members. The possibility exists that a third factor may also be involved (i.e., that the increase might be due, in some degree, to more comprehensive law enforcement reporting and improved gang awareness by some law enforcement agencies).
In February 2008, the Providence Journal newspaper ran a series of articles that highlighted the gang problem indicative of much of the United States. One front-page article began with the following shocking pronouncement: “Gangs and the violence that trails them have become a major problem in Providence, the state’s capital and largest city. Boys and girls as young as 12 have been identified as members of the Young Bloods, Hanover Boyz, MS-13, the Almighty Latin King Nation, Laos Pride, Tiny Raskal Gang, Original Crip Gang, Oriental Rascals, Providence Street Boys, Dark Side Rascals, 18th Street Gang and the Asian Outlaw Boyz. The Latin Kings are involved in drug trafficking, but most of the gang members are not in it for the money. They join for a sense of belonging and to protect themselves from other youths. They have little sense of history and often no idea why they fight, except to avenge slights with rival gangs.” Providence Police Major Stephen M. Campbell, who oversees the detective division, identified the monitoring of gang activity as a department priority.
For the past 20 years, Barbara Allen has worked as a social worker and student assistance counselor in Providence schools. Much of that time she spent working with students at the Mt. Pleasant High School. Over those two decades of service, she has experienced the death of 23 youth, many of them related to gang violence. But the peak of this horrible problem occurred in 2005, when six Mt. Pleasant students were killed by gun related gang violence within a six-month period. Outraged by this senseless violence, Ms. Allen put together a student group of youth from different backgrounds, including known gang members, to form a student-led group that would be able to take action against the gang activity and other related crimes that were so pervasive at Mt. Pleasant High School. She identified a small group of 12 students from the circle of contacts and brought them together to form “Teens on Target,” or TNT.
Ms. Allen formed the student group “Teens on Target” as a way to get students involved in changing a culture that was too conducive to gangs and violence. She recruited students from a cross-section of groups in the school, including young gang members, to take part in the group. She contacted YCW and asked how they could become involved. The group received basic leadership, implementation, and teambuilding training from YCW’s programs. They also received several in-school trainings on conflict resolution, on how to plan civic engagement projects, and on gang structure and involvement (in a class called Gangs 101) from the crime prevention specialist at the RI Attorney General’s office. In addition, the members received additional training in Kingian Nonviolence from the Street Workers program, a program led by former gang members who work for the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. The Street Workers have been trained specifically to help young people who have been involved in gang activity to find ways out of this lifestyle. They joined in with Ms. Allen to lead a series of projects directed at educating other students at school assemblies about what it was like to be involved in a gang, the criminal intent of many gangs, and how to avoid falling under the influence of gangs.
The group is structured to include students from every ethnic background and grade level and includes “alumni members” as well: students who graduated from Mt. Pleasant and who now serve as TNT trainers and group project leaders. The alumni are now college students representing four local colleges, but continue to maintain their relationship with TNT on a volunteer basis to help other students who had come from the same difficult backgrounds. TNT members receive training from YCW every year and are active in planning and presenting workshops and performances that address gang behavior, substance abuse, bullying and intimidation, and guns in their schools. They have received recognition for their work from the RI Attorney General’s Office and from the Providence School Department. They maintain a core group of between 14 and 20 students but have an extended core group that has expanded to include up to 100 students annually.
A major draw of the program is the inclusion of performing arts, dance and music into the program, as well as testimony and story telling from former gang members or students who have been victimized by crime. During every assembly, the students repeat their performances in the school gymnasium for all six school periods, for every student who attends the school. The hour-long show highlights a variety of several different types of performance. Among the performances are student-written and performed vignettes about gangs and bullying; step dancers; hip hop and rap singers who sing self-composed songs about avoiding gangs, guns and drug use; cheerleaders and basketball players performing and speaking; former gang members who give testimony about how they have changed their lives; and the TNT band, with their theme song, “Where Is the Love?” The performances culminate every session with testimony from members who have been gang involved or come from families with gang life influence. Many discuss how they have lost friends and family members to gang violence or relate stories about the horrible impact of substance abuse on family members.
Above all, TNT members and extended core group members express the importance of being a positive influence on younger members. TNT members make a special effort to go to every Providence middle school during the school year and speak about the program at middle schools that feed into their school. The members also visit the middle schools at the end of the school year to recruit new members to TNT who would be entering the high school. In the past three years, they adopted the Bridgham Middle School and supported its YCW program activities. Bridgham MS had been recognized by Providence Police as a major recruiting pool for several different Providence gangs in the area. According to the school’s principal, the school had realized a great decline in gang influence since the TNT students had begun their work with Bridgham students.
4. Results and Moving Forward:
Mt. Pleasant High School has gone from becoming one of the most dangerous schools in the city of Providence to being considered the safest. The Superintendent of Schools, Mr. Tom Brady, attended last year’s leadership conference and recognized Mt. Pleasant for the work that it had done to make it a better place for learning. Mt. Pleasant was also recognized as the High School of the Year at the first Youth Leadership Conference at the University of Rhode Island last March 2011. The Providence After School Alliance is now considering a proposal that would bring TNT programs to all five Providence middle schools. A major reason for the success of this program is the tireless efforts and full support the students receive from their advisor, Barbara Allen, LICMSW, who serves as the school’s Student Assistance Counselor. A program like TNT requires someone who not only has special experience and knowledge to draw from about gangs, but is someone who students can trust, knowing that she offers them her support and will assist them to make possible whatever it is they want to do. Even when times were tough, and the school has gone through several leadership changes, Ms. Allen has given the TNT program its liveliness through her full attention, and made it a successful youth-led gang and violence intervention program.
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