An Urban Ethnography of Latino Street:Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, Chapter 13: Dropouts

Francine Garcia-Hallcom

Professor emerita of the California State University (Northridge)
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The most important consideration in a discussion concerning drop outs and gang membership is recognizing that once a youngster joins a gang, dropping out of school almost always naturally follows.

At the same time, surprisingly few young people join gangs irrespective of Latino street gangs’ current high profile in the media. The figure ranges from 4 % to l0 % in different areas. Perhaps even more startling are the figures for gang-related juvenile crime, which usually hover somewhere around 2% (Bodinger deUriarte l993)–granted that these figures depend largely on how a gang member is defined and, as mentioned above, definitions can be full of loop-holes. Nevertheless, the figures for gang-related juvenile crime are astonishingly low by comparison.

However, research clearly asserts that gang members rarely graduate from high school (Lasley l992) (Spergel, l990). Without a doubt they influence peripheral members who might otherwise be salvaged. And they also influence non-gang members who often drop out because of the company they keep.

For Latino youths the drop-out rate is astronomical, vacillating around 50% in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties soaring upwards from one neighborhood to another. Hence, it is truly impossible to determine how much of the Latino drop out rate is gang related and how much is due to dysfunctional environments, noxious homes, or all of the above.

In the upside down value system of the gang domain, being a “school boy” refers not only to a style of clothing, but to a lifestyle considered weak, powerless, and cowardly–certainly one that is incompatible with the gang doctrine.

The “school boy” look, of course, is a clean-cut look and a simple one — jeans, shirts, tees-preferably tucked in, normal hair, etc. Also derisive is the term “school-girl” which parallels the male term and is the antithesis of the cholo/a fashion.

In the current investigation, one of the most frequently cited reasons for dropping out of school was incarceration and the ensuing loss of time from school. For example, Alfred was in the middle of the llth grade when he dropped out. When asked why he dropped out so close to the diploma, he responded, “I got busted.” Here is where the impact of gangs is devastating not only to the members, but to those in any way associated with them.

Interviewer: “What for?”

Alfred: “Carrying a gun. I spent a lot of time in Juvie…so I dropped out.”

Interviewer: “Did you ever go to continuation or adult school after that?”

Alfred: “Yeah, but it was boring. It was a waste of time.”

Interviewer: “How do you mean boring? Like what?”

Alfred: “Like nothing we did had any purpose. Yeah — and the time I got busted with the gun, it wasn’t even mine. I was just cruising with some vatos and …”

Many reports were similar, not only about the first encounter with the law, but about continuation and adult schools which are somehow delivering curriculum that appears to be totally irrelevant to many of these youths. The usefulness of the diploma has all but lost its luster.

Still, the majority of the gang members interviewed said they intended to get their high school diploma sooner or later even though they are ambivalent about its benefits. Many said that getting a diploma does little towards securing a job. Some acknowledged that getting an education was a good thing, but it was not something they could or needed to do right now. Others recounted examples of friends and relative with diplomas and menial jobs, or worse yet, no jobs at all! Further study in this area is also recommended.

Alfred described an occasion in which he had to write a letter for a relative who holds a high school diploma, but who is illiterate nonetheless.

Many gang members perceived classrooms as a form of incarceration. The school itself was viewed as little more than a center for social interaction.

The literature concurs. The schools are perceived as “… sites for recruitment and socializing” (Bodinger-deUriarte, 1993) (Boyle 1992). As a result, gang members who are expelled or suspended usually pop-up on or near the campus within a day or two, using the school as a social hangout and as a recruitment station.

There is also a peculiar contagion according to school administrators interviewed in this study, in that students who are expelled or who transfer from a gang-infested school to a gang free school, soon spread their blight to the new campus.

Social-science literature and law enforcement data clearly confirm that higher rates of criminal behavior occur among gang members than among other youths (Lynon 1992, p.349-449). Thus, joining a gang virtually guarantees detention of some kind by a law enforcement agency and subsequent stories similar to Alfred’s. Of course, confinement of this sort generates prestige and is practically a rite of passage in the gang world. Once in the gang, peer pressure necessitates going along with whatever happens to be on the gang docket at the moment.

Alfred: “When something’s going to happen, man–you have to get down. That’s what you joined for–to go down for them. They get down for you, too. It’s protection. You have to.”

About “15% of weapons violations at schools throughout the U.S. were in the Los Angeles area” (Barber 1993:28). This, of course, does not account for weapons violations outside of school grounds.

Gustavo: “I got busted with them even if I wasn’t a member. I was just out with a couple of the guys–they were carrying everything man–guns, marijuana. Chingao!” One was my cousin. We grew up together and we always did things together.

Interviewer: “Well, you must have known that they would be carrying, Que No?”

Gustavo: “Yeah, but I didn’t know it was like so much. They had craque, chiva, de todo. Hijole! One of the vatos was selling to some tecatos. After that, I did some time and when I got out I got busted for armed robbery with a carnal I met at (name of juvenile penal institution). I never went back to school after that. What for?”

As might be expected, college seemed inconceivable even to the 14 year olds interviewed, many of whom genuinely hated school already. Many non-gang affiliated participants said the public schools were merely holding pens or baby sitters for minority students and little more. They felt they were not taught anything when they were in school. They certainly were not getting “an education” in any sense of the word. Others had cousins and friends in parochial and other private schools who were clearly learning a good deal more than they were. Most participants were also distinctly cognizant of tracking systems that existed in their schools although the terminology they used for the various levels was not as antiseptic as that used by administration.

The participants in this investigation remarked that teens who graduate from ghetto schools do not know enough to get even a minimal 9 to 5 office job, and more often than not — any kind of job at all. Thus, staying in school was “all hype” as one individual put it, and gang activity seemed to be a more realistic option for him.

Drop outs and crime are discussed collectively in this investigation; however, this is not to imply that drop-outs are all committing crimes, nor that drop-outs all join gangs. In fact, the drop out problem is extremely complex. It is partially the outcome of poverty, of poor experiences in schools, of “miseducation” and the resulting lack of at least minimal grade level reading, writing and math skills. It is also an individually distinct matter from one student to another although common threads run through most dropouts’ tales of woe.

Often schools are so browbeaten and intimidated by the pandemonium heaped upon them by gang members that they take little or no action against drop outs. It is also common to react too severely exercising excessively punitive or highly restraining kinds of strategies that merely add to the fortress standards sometimes found in schools.

But some schools respond by mobilizing the community and getting broader participation from the locals to extend meaningful and workable alternatives for teens. These schools are able to usurp the sociopsychological reasons behind teens joining gangs in the first place, and they are able to create viable programs with the help of the surrounding community–a case in point is Dr. Monroe’s program in the heart of New York’s Harlem. (See solutions)


In cities throughout the country, the impact of poverty on the school system has been overwhelming. Certainly in Los Angeles, “white-flight” as the movement was called, is now the phenomenon of not only whites, but middle class Americans of all colors who have fled the inner cities. This separation has been so pervasive that schools are utterly segregated today far more so than they were thirty years ago when desegregation began in earnest.

Presently, in many districts, only lower socio-economic minority students attend public schools while everyone else attends private schools, or has moved far away from the vicinity to the middle and upper middle class public school suburbs. Those who are left behind know that the deck is stacked against. Most realize they are not up to par in reading, writing, math and technology. They do not have their own PC in their rooms. Most do not have a room of their own and live in overcrowded conditions. Many experience a free-floating anxiety and anger about life, often directed toward their parents, police, teachers, and anyone else in authority. Many feelings of frustration silently choke the residents in these neighborhoods.

The poverty rates among the Latino populations in the U. S. teeter at approximately 30% varying somewhat from one region to another. Generally speaking, in the United States poverty brings with it a certain amount of shame and disgrace. A disapproving stigma is attached to those who fall within the poverty level ($12,156 for a family of three in 1995) in a country like ours where the poor are typically viewed as deficient, morally corrupt, lazy, or stupid. More diplomatically put, poverty is sometimes perceived as the outcome of foolish personal choices; nevertheless, the poor are usually blamed for their circumstances. Poverty, of course, is often a by-product of racism and discrimination and not always merely unwise personal choice.

Other research has noted that while high unemployment rates in inner cities run rampant, and although there are numerous anti violence measures, countless school programs, and self-help programs fail because there is rarely a job program attached to any of them (Aslcher l994). Actually, some of the few successful programs, do indeed have job programs, which perhaps explains their positive achievements–i.e. Father Boyle’s “Jobs For a Future” a referral center that seeks employment for at risk youths in a gang-ridden inner-city section of Los Angeles.

Poor neighborhoods are turbulent neighborhoods. They spawn girls and boys who turn to gangs, and the gangs themselves take on a variety of forms in response to the two genders as well as to various ethnicities (Joe and Meda l995) (Wilson l987) (Joe l995:408-431).

Another unfortunate but authentic consequence of poverty is that parents themselves often encourage youths to go to work rather than continue their education. The dynamics behind such advise are simple to comprehend though much maligned by the predominant middle-class society.

If a household is running on minimum wage salaries, a 16 year old son or daughter who can get a job at minimum wage, adds significantly to total spendable income. When seen from this perspective–a point of view the middle-class never even imagines, the poor parent is much more likely than the middle class parent to encourage a hapless youth to drop out of school.

If that child is not doing well in school anyway, it makes sense to advise him/her to take a job, to get off the gang-infested streets, and help put bread on the table.

In contrast, middle class children who take jobs generally do so to support their cars or to buy stereo equipment; a few save money for college and others buy clothes and other “extras,” but rarely must they contribute to the family grocery budget.


In the lower socioeconomic milieu, teachers and schools are blamed to a large extent for the failures of families. Although some teachers and schools are indeed failing miserably in their charge, most are sincere, but thwarted by a deluded public. Teachers and schools are being asked to do entirely too much. As an institution, the school is not omnipotent. For the limited number of hours that a pupil is in the school, in loco parentis, that institution cannot instill values when few, if any, are taught at home. School as an institution cannot teach the three R’s, citizenship, morals, and values in high tech resolution if none of these is modeled or highly prized at home.

Neither can the school motivate the youngster to stay in school, to study and succeed when the home itself is the embodiment of lack of education, and when society at large promotes anti intellectualism. Although most Latino parents are hard-working people who prize education, some homes are clearly lacking a work ethic and are all too obviously promoting a welfare mentality instead. The cholo home, for example, is the epitome of degeneracy.

Fortunately, the majority of poor, Latino, uneducated parents instill values, ethics, and motivate their youngsters to acquire an education (see non-gang affiliated essay excerpts). Fortunately, too, most maintain a very strong work ethic indeed. Nevertheless, people who live in lower socio-economic neighborhoods, in “dysfunctional” environments as Wilson has termed them, more readily fall prey to gangs, drugs, and crime than do their middle-class contemporaries (Wilson l987).

The task of educators has grown disproportionately as compared to the low expectations society has placed on parents. If they are ill-equipped to handle their off-spring, the school certainly cannot be viewed as a panacea, nor should it assume the role of “holding-tank” either. Schools do not have the kind of power that many journalists and critics of education appear to think they have. With rare exceptions, such as Dr. Monroe’s school in Harlem, most schools are not able to provide vitality and adequate funding for education as well as lend moral support to unloved and uncared for youths.

“To be absolutely frank, schools are often glad to see gang members drop by the wayside, because they are the people who typically cause most disruption both in and outside of the classroom,” said one middle-school principal in Ventura County.

Indeed, gang members and their associates, while still in school, usually sit together, then insult and goad others. They heckle, defy authority, and laugh mockingly until fellow classmates and even teachers are drawn into confrontations. They challenge and ridicule any passers-by including parents and other visitors to the school. They are generally hostile and impertinent. They try to intimidate anyone perceived as weaker. They shout obscenities, wave crude gestures, and joke with one another at everyone else’s expense –certainly at the expense of any learning taking place in classrooms. The pay-off for them is in the tumult they create and the attention they crave so voraciously.

On the other hand, teachers are demoralized and quickly burn out in gang-ridden schools. Unsure about what parents and society want from them, education is faced with difficult considerations nowadays. For example, should lockers be searched for weapons or do students have a right to carry them (as some argue) for their own protection? Can students be “wanded” with metal detectors? Does this add to the garrison atmosphere of inner city public schools, or does it matter anymore on school grounds that have become utterly unsafe for young people? “What about the students’ civil rights?”

Most teachers are sincerely trying to reach the students and educate them. Sometimes they actually make a difference in someone’s life. But in a society that promotes anti intellectualism, the teacher, the school, and the intervention program that fosters education may be out of touch with reality.

It is not “cool” to be a book worm. Only “nerds” and “geeks” do that! Kids go to public school to “mess around” and they are often popular as a result of their antics–even in middle-class white neighborhoods. It is not chic to study hard for tests, to do homework, to be a “brain.” Those who go to public schools and try to learn often have to camouflage their efforts so as not to appear genuinely interested in the curricula lest they become the objects of ridicule among their peers.

On the other hand, those who cause trouble are applauded by their peers. Intervention programs and lists of solutions often include in-service training for teachers and pre-professional training, so that everyone at the school might be sensitive to and fully aware of the issues that impinge on young people’s lives –the violence, poverty, guns, the media representation, etc. In the current investigation, the majority of the teachers interviewed were already amply aware of these issues. Perhaps we need no longer blame the teacher for insensitivity, much of which may be occurring at home. It may be that the parents need in-service training!

In the same poverty stricken neighborhoods, a good many parents of non-gang affiliated youths are quick to blame the parents of wayward youths for their predicaments. Many have simply given up. Many parents in the current investigation asked, “What should I do with this kid?” A number of teachers at the various sites visited reported having been asked the same question by despairing parents who could no longer manage their off-spring.

On another level in this all too complex problem, there is indeed a good deal of “miseducation” in the public schools. Clearly, many teachers are burnt-out, and are merely babysitting what they see as youths who are uninterested in learning, but who must be kept from harming other pupils or from causing a general disruption. Many teachers in this nebulous realm of teacher-as babysitter, have lost all incentive to teach the students anything–they are merely “… drawing a paycheck and accumulating years toward retirement,” as one school staff member put it. Two teachers in the Colonia area admitted in the current investigation that their objective is simply “…to keep the kids from rampaging up and down the halls disturbing others.”

Teachers who spend the entire class period disciplining, are unable to conduct a lesson. When pupils have no standards and no motivation, learning cannot take place.

Personal classroom visitation is an eye-opener for anyone who wants to put in the time to do it. Unfortunately, a good many critics of the schools and of social forces in general have not set foot in a public school classroom since their own school days. Public schools in urban settings are pure and simply a disaster!

Ironically, most schools discourage visitation in a number of subtle ways. The current investigation was greatly assisted by credential candidates and former student-teachers who invited the principal investigator to their classrooms and subsequently to their schools — to the lunch areas, the corridors between periods, and to the grounds where other teachers and administrators could be observed at work. Quite honestly, administrators do not welcome visitors, especially research people “snooping around” — as someone at Parkman Junior High put it in the current field investigation. On the other hand, public schools are tax-payer supported entities, receiving largely local and state generated funds with some federally funded programs in tow.


In all fairness to thousands of diligent teachers everywhere, classroom visitation does leave the visitor with the impression that many teens really do not want to be in school. They are there because it is required by law. They are there to disrupt, or cavort for the amusement of their peers. By the same token, teachers who want to instruct and who make elaborate lesson plans find themselves acting like master sergeants half of the day attempting to keep the rowdy students quiet long enough to instruct the others. Unfortunately, those students who are seriously eager to learn are being grievously short-changed!

Perhaps we need to rethink compulsory education in this country. Perhaps we need to visit the classrooms and revisit our assumptions.

Our educational system is a life-long system unlike the traditional Asian, Middle Eastern, or European school wherein decisions affecting life-long careers are determined by the results of examinations given at ages 11,12, and 13. Therefore, students who are not serious today, might be better off out of our schools. At a later date, maybe even a few years late, they may wish to resume their studies in earnest. Education in this country is a life-long proposition with many middle-aged and older “returning” students visible on our campuses everywhere.


Two kinds of schools for young people might serve the community better than what we currently have: one school for youths who want to “mess around” providing fun activities, games. These would be virtual holding tanks, conceivably attempting to offer some vocational education for those young people who awaken during this experience; and another kind of school for youngsters who want to learn academic subject and who want to become a part of mainstream society. As the situation stands right now, the “rowdies” destroy the learning environment for everyone.

It may not be too surprising that decreasing levels of school commitment are associated with increasing rates of school crime, misconduct and non attendance (Jenkins 1995:221-39). It may be far more costly to continue as we have been, than to restructure the entire arrangement.

Granted that the evolution of gang violence is at once complex, enigmatic and multi-faceted, clearly poverty, unemployment, dysfunctional families and lack of education are to blame (Eckstein and Huton l994). In this admixture, gangs customarily develop and thrive. Neighboring schools have become prolific recruiting grounds. With uncanning perceptivity, gangs respond to troubled youths’needs for family and approval. In Gaustad’s words, gangs create a “tenacious framework” within which school violence can take root and grow (l99l:24). Schools have become important socializing instruments for new recruits as well as important centers for gang-sport and drug commerce. Thus, the school and adjacent surroundings are often among the most popular gang hang-outs. With plenty of walls and fences just waiting for taggers, schools are targeted for vandalism as well (Boyle 1992).


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