School gangs DO exist

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Ask a parent or teacher about gangs in primary and secondary schools, and responses vary.

“There aren’t gangs in schools here in Singapore,” one Singaporean parent of a child in a mission school said, and another said he hadn’t heard about gangs in secondary schools for many years.

There hasn’t been much about gangs in the media recently, either. While there were stories in 2010 about violence by teenage gangs that resulted in some deaths, the topic has largely disappeared since then. But all this only means that the police have not been involved.

Talk to children or their parents from neighbourhood schools or teachers in schools across the island, on the other hand, and the story is different. Not only do they confirm that Primary 5 or 6 and secondary school students are joining gangs. They also talk about how students at some schools avoid wearing certain colours or following behaviour habits that would identify them with a gang.

Outside the mainstream media, there are indeed stories about these gangs, albeit often anecdotal. As one student blogger wrote: “A portion of students who end up in neighbourhood schools come from dysfunctional family backgrounds. They take to doing all sorts of undesirable things like smoking, fighting. These negative influences spread, and, in the end, perpetuate into a vicious cycle.” While he has broken the cycle in secondary school, he said: “One of my close friends has a gang, and even got arrested.”   A counsellor recounted a story about a 10-year old in Primary 4, who said “the pace is so fast. P3 was ok. But P4…” This pace led to problems in school, the counsellor reported – he doesn’t want to do homework, hates people around him and wants to be “a gangster’.

And a post from a parent explained how his Primary 5 daughter was threatened by a gang of boys, who also had a Facebook page saying “No xxx group” and “Kill xxx group.”

It’s stories like these from teachers, students and parents that hint at the potential scale of the problem. Actual data, though, is hard to find. While the Ministry of Home Affairs says the number of youths arrested has fallen over the last five years and ”the youth crime and youth gang situation in Singapore remain under control”, arrests alone may not fully measure the extent of the problem.

Primary and secondary school teachers say that while they know about gangs, they can do little to stop them and have few ways of reporting them. The current alternatives for teachers are essentially mild punishments for minor troublemakers or keeping students out of school altogether for serious offences, which doesn’t solve the problem.  With one counsellor to more than 1,000 students in some schools, there are insufficient resources to provide the support to overcome the problem of gangs. And there is little, if any, reporting of numbers, even when teachers know about the problem students.

Regardless of the scale, student involvement in gangs has critical implications. As the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) said: “Youth in gangs are more likely to abuse drugs, engage in high-risk sexual behaviour and experience long-term health and social consequences.”

A key question, then, is what to do. The CDC also said: “Very early prevention efforts show promising results. School-based programmes addressing substance abuse, delinquency, and violence prevention have reduced risk factors for gang-joining. Similarly, community partnerships can reduce gang-joining through supporting activities such as tutoring, mentoring, life-skills training, case management, parental involvement, and supervised recreation.”

Two steps seem especially important here.

The first is to figure out the actual scope of the problem. When discussion is scarce and data is insufficient, it is difficult to figure out the scale of the issue. Collecting and using more details about gangs can lead to more programmes or resources to prevent gangs or get students out of them. But MOE first needs to ask its teachers in a survey about their concerns with gangs and what they suggest should be done.

A second and even more crucial step is to provide support and activities to keep students away from gangs. And while the good news is that some initiatives are already underway, they may be insufficient to address the issue adequately.

One initiative in schools is to engage counsellors. As MSN News reported after the flare-up in violence several years ago, more than half a dozen schools engaged counsellors specifically to protect their students from gang activities and offer weekly counselling programmes designed to give them the confidence to make better choices. While it is a good step, teachers say the number of counsellors is far from enough and more counsellors running more activities in more schools would be beneficial.

Another promising initiative is Project Schools, run by The Law Society of Singapore, which is designed to create a greater awareness of the law and inform students of the consequences of juvenile delinquency. Since its launch in 2012, 28 schools have participated and it has touched more than 13,000 students. Among the lessons is “Gangs & Rioting”. Social service agencies also have a critical role. For example, the Singapore Children’s Society (SCS) provides programmes including ones that give children self-confidence, teach values and provide places for youth to hang out after school.

Yet doing more is essential. While schools do have counsellors, the numbers are small and more are needed. Stronger support for teachers, who may lack the policies or backing to intervene sufficiently with students who are causing problems, would strengthen their position. Social service organisations can expand their role as well.

While it is unfortunate that gangs do exist around primary and secondary schools here, the problems do not seem to have grown out of hand – yet. Still, better initiatives to prevent students from joining these groups need to be stepped up before gangs turn into a significant problem.

Image credits: youthgangs.intropagina.nl