Some kids may be fascinated by the gang lifestyle and love the rush and adrenaline of breaking the law, according to Robert Ontiveros, former gang member and CEO of Community Wraparound, a nonprofit organization that focuses on mentoring to keep teens out of gangs.
While the average age that a teen joins a gang is 15, cities around the country are seeing younger and younger kids being recruited into gangs – some as young as nine. Why? Younger children may be more susceptible to the draw of a gang, and the criminal penalties for juveniles are much less so they are enlisted to do more serious crimes and reduce the risk for the gang.
“Many times, a gang gives young people a sense of belonging and respect – something they’re not getting anywhere else in their life,” said Ontiveros.
Ontiveros points out that all the mentors at Community Wraparound are former gang members, providing a lived experience that lays bare the realities of gang life. When they hear a kid say that their gang is like a family and they feel loved, the mentors draw from their experiences to set them straight.
“After I went to prison, how many members of my former gang came to see me, wrote me a letter, checked in on my family? None. They didn’t love me. They only cared about me when I could make them money or commit their violence,” he recalled.
Last year, Community Wraparound partnered with us and Ontiveros launched a training program for the teachers and staff to recognize the five phases of youth getting into gangs. They watch for obvious things like colors, symbols, clothing, hand symbols – and more subtle signs like withdrawal, being secretive, drug and alcohol use, unexplained injuries, and dramatic changes in personality and interests.
“Prevention is absolutely the key to reaching young people before the gangs do,” Ontiveros said. “Our mentors work closely with school counselors and teachers who already have relationships with the students. We help identify kids – boys and girls – who may be susceptible to gang recruitment and help them see that we know what they’re going through because we’ve lived it.”
In some cases, Community Wraparound works with a student’s entire family to help them get the resources they need to keep their children safe and on the right track.
Mentors help students feel like school is a sanctuary – a safe place – where they can work on their education and career goals.
“Job training is an important part of our mentoring. We want kids to find what interests them and show them how that can turn into a rewarding career,” he said. “Everything we do is planting seeds in their minds. They may not understand now, but as they go on in their lives, they’ll remember that we did everything we could to show them there are better opportunities than gang life.”
January is National Mentoring Month and Gang Prevention Month and the two go hand in hand. Ontiveros points out that partnerships with schools are an excellent first step in preventing kids from joining gangs.