When you ask a fourteen to
seventeen-year-old gang member, "Why are you with those guys
and girls?" his usual reply will be, "It's the guns, the
cars, the girls, the drugs, the money, the excitement, the
fun." It's very hard to change that kind of attitude. We
began to see that even earlier, in elementary and junior
high school, certain kids were getting involved in certain
activities, wearing certain kinds of clothes, and acting out
certain behaviors. I would ask them the same question, "Why
are you with these folks?" And they would tell me something
that frightened me to hear this from a seventh or eighth
grader: "I am with them because they listen to me, they care
for me, they take care of me. If I have problems, I can go
to them any time. They feed me when I'm hungry, and no
matter what I do, they care about me. They even help me with
How am I supposed to tell a student who answers like that
not to be going to somebody for that kind of help and
assistance. What I found even more frightening was that
there was really nobody else they felt they could turn to.
As a matter of fact, that was a critical factor for us to
find out. These are students who are being
recruited—seduced, if you will—sometimes right on the
campuses of the schools. A young person who is having
trouble at home, some kind of conflict, would usually say
something like, "Oh, I can't stand it at home. Mom and Dad
are so old fashioned, they don't know what it is like to
grow up in this country. They told me I can't start dating
until I get to college, or maybe a little later." Then they
will say, "I can't talk to them; we can't communicate. There
is no communication." After school, during vacations, and on
weekends, when the guys and girls have nothing else better
to do, they hang out on the school campus basketball courts.
If you look off into the corner, you will see a couple of
guys sitting there waiting for them to finish their workout,
ready to take them to lunch so that they can talk about
what's going on in their families.
After many years, we have discovered certain questions that
need to be asked the students early on. By asking the right
questions, we have found it possible to characterize a kid
who is in danger of getting into trouble. We have seen the
same thing over and over again. For example, we will ask
students—those between the ages of 10 to 13, sometimes even
younger—this very important question: "If you or your friend
were in serious trouble and you needed help, assistance, or
ad- vice-whether it's pregnancy, drugs, gangs, or anything
else— who would you go to for advice and assistance?" We
began to recognize that we were getting, in general, three
types of answers. The first type of answer would come from
the kind of student who rarely needs assistance from our
clinic: "You mean if I got my girlfriend pregnant?" "Yes."
"Oh my god! Oh no! She would kill me, but no matter what, I
would tell my mother." Or it might be the father; or, some
other appropriate and reputable adult. These kinds of kids
don't need to come to our center very frequently—maybe one
kid in a hundred.
The second category of students, when asked that same
question, would answer, "Huh! Adults? No way! I will go talk
to my 'pretend' big brother or sister." By the word
"pretend," they mean "street," "peer". And to them, an
adequate adult would be any eighteen-year-old. There is no
coincidence that leaders of gangs are referred to in
Cantonese as dai lo—"big brother" or "big sister". There is
a lot of meaning behind that terminology.
Teens in general have a sense of immortality, "I'm not going
to die. The guy right next to me might, but not me!"
Consequently, the most recent number-one cause of death
statistically has been death by accident. Suicide is second,
unless the boy or girl happens to be from a certain ethnic
background, living in a certain metropolitan area, in which
case it would be gun-shot wounds.
This sense of immortality on the part of teens is something
we must keep in mind. When a parent and child comes to me
for a consultation, and I ask the parent, "What is the most
horrible thing that you are afraid could possibly happen to
your child?" Mom or Dad would reply, "Homicide, suicide,
decapitation, drugs, kidnapping...!" They are imagining the
most horrible things. They are panic-stricken. They think
these kinds of things might happen to their own child. Of
course, a good parent would worry about such things. What
does the teen say? "Ma, Dad, get real! That's not going to
happen to me!"
And so we need to deal with the problem of that sense of
immortality teens have. Sometimes our efforts consist simply
of our trying to help these adolescents survive their
adolescence. Sometimes we have to help the parents survive
their children's adolescence, too. But the main point to
remember is that these teens are "adults in training".
The third category of student is the one I worry about from
a mental-health point of view. When the question is asked,
"Who would you go to?" This kind of student would reply,
"Nobody. I keep it inside. I go to nobody. I talk to
nobody." These kids are most in danger. They are often the
ones who act out suddenly, whether it be suicidal or
homicidal activity or behavior. And then people who knew
them will often comment, "He seemed okay, but he never
really talked to anybody about anything."
There are certain mannerisms, activities, or behaviors by
which we are able to identify adolescents and teens who are
now or who are becoming at risk. These are classified as
late, intermediate, and early signs. First I will describe
the late signs. We work very closely with law enforcement
and school officials with whom we regularly collaborate on
projects and programs. When we ask law-enforcement officials
at what point do most parents become aware that their child
is involved with gangs, they usually answer, "When their kid
is arrested by the police." I do not consider that to be a
first sign; I consider that to be a late sign.
There are more late signs:
•The gang lifestyle is the only way for them to live; they
feel there is no alternative.
•Regarding truancy, they spend more time out of school than
they do in school. In other words, when parents get called
before the Board of Education and are told, "Your son (or
daughter) is a problem," that is not an early sign.
•At home, curfew has little or no meaning to them—or else
there is no curfew at all. Runaway behavior is to the point
that the son or daughter is not home much at all.
•Open defiance to all authority figures: teachers, police,
as well as parents.
•The use of weapons and other means to threaten, hurt,
•Gang-related tattoos everywhere on the body.
•Regular and consistent use of drugs and/or alcohol, and
possibly even dealing in drugs.
Those are the kinds of things that police officers look for
when they stop kids on the road. When the police find such "Behaviour,
they will keep an eye on that person because they know that
he or she will probably be involved in other criminal
activities later. Those are all late signs. When a young
person manifests late signs like those, it is very difficult
to convince him or her to turn away from such dangerous
To be continued