Vol. 10, No. 2 • May 2006

What You Should Know about Youth Gangs in North Carolina

by James M. Frabutt and Anne P. Buford

Throughout North Carolina, families, law enforcement officials, and educators are confronting a dangerous and multifaceted problem: youth gangs.

In February 2006, Winston-Salem police broke up a fight between 30 to 40 potential gang members. In Hickory, law enforcement personnel are talking with city leaders about creating a specialized unit to prevent gang expansion. In Dunn (pop. 9,196) police, citizens, and administrators recently gathered to discuss a new program they hope will reduce the impact of Harnett County’s 30 gangs and 200 gang members.

Youth Gangs in North Carolina?
The reality is that youth gangs are here, they are dispersed widely throughout the state, and they represent a growing difficulty for everyone.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) says that in 2002 and 2003, the largest cities in the country (i.e., with populations over 250,000) had the greatest number of gangs, gang members, and gang-based murders, while rural areas and smaller cities had generally lower numbers of each.

But gang activity is not just a “big city” problem. Indeed, in 2004, North Carolina police officials shared with the Juvenile Justice Digest that Hispanic gangs were infiltrating the state’s rural areas. Moreover, between 1999 and 2004, the Governor’s Crime Commission reported a 16% increase in the number of gangs in NC and a 68% jump in the number of gang members. This growth occurred in both urban and rural areas.

What Are Youth Gangs?
A gang is a group or association of three or more persons who may have a name and who individually or collectively engage in, or have engaged in, criminal activity which creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Criminal activity includes juvenile acts that if committed by an adult would be a crime. Gang members usually range in age from 12 to 24, share common symbols and clothing, and may be linked to specific neighborhoods or locations. Some experts also believe youth gangs demonstrate organizational durability over time despite changing memberships.

Who Joins Gangs?
Some evidence indicates that racial minority male youth from single-parent, city-based homes are at increased risk of joining gangs. However, we also know that a community’s racial and ethnic makeup significantly influences the racial and ethnic makeup of its gangs.

In truth there is no single, immutable profile of gang members. They can come from any racial or ethnic background. They are male and female, and they live in single-parent, two-parent, and blended families. They come from households of every socioeconomic and educational status.

Why Do Kids Join Gangs?
There are several answers to this question. According to the OJJDP, youth may be at-risk for associating with gangs if they have few socioeconomic opportunities or pathways to achievement, if they receive insufficient supervision and guidance from parents and teachers, or if they spend time with youth who are gang members.

The NC Gang Investigator’s Association further explains that gangs may provide youth with organization, discipline, and safety that may be absent in other life areas. Gangs may foster a sense of character, and they may be places where youth “fit in.” Additionally, gangs may prove dedicated and faithful to individual members when other persons or groups are not. Moreover, gangs may appear to youths to be dangerously thrilling, they may provide income, and they may seem enticing for the apparent respect they command.

Taking all of these possibilities into account, most youth join gangs voluntarily, although they do not usually remain members forever.

Warning Signs
How might parents, family members, or other concerned persons know that children or teenagers are in gangs? Each person is different, and experts maintain that the only way to be certain is to talk with youth directly. However, according to authorities some general warning signs include:

  • Decreased interest in school, hobbies, family, and non-gang friendships

  • Socializing with gang-affiliated peers

  • Changes in daily routines, such as being out late at night

  • Possession or use of large amounts of money

  • Wearing certain colors, bandanas, and tilted hats

  • Using a new name or nickname

  • Signs of fighting, such as bruises and cuts

  • Tattoos (for example teardrops, three dots, pitchforks, crosses, the numbers 13 and 14)

  • Presence of gang graffiti on notebooks, backpacks, or other personal items

  • Increased police involvement

What You Can Do
Families, teachers, and community leaders sometimes feel powerless in the face of youth gangs. However, there are steps caring adults can take to prevent or lessen the impact of gang membership.

First and foremost, supportive communication with youth is vital. If children and teenagers know that people in their lives care about them, accept them, and listen to them, they may be less inclined to seek security and belonging in a gang.

Second, spending quality time with youth can let them know that they are loved and valued, keeping them from turning to gangs for a sense of worth. Third, establishing suitable, healthy discipline and continually emphasizing the inappropriateness of gang affiliation may help protect youth and preclude their interest in gangs.

Tips for Parents
  • Don’t let your child hang around gang members. Meet your child’s friends and get to know their parents.
  • Develop good communication with your children. Talk to them openly and often. Do not put them down.
  • Set limits. Remember: Unacceptable Behavior that is allowed becomes Acceptable Behavior.
  • Don’t allow your children to dress in gang-style clothing; be concerned if he wears the same color every day.
  • Don’t allow your child to write graffiti on books, etc. Graffiti demonstrates gang affiliation. It is NOT artwork.
  • Take an active role in building your children’s self-esteem. Teach them to be leaders, not followers.
  • Become an informed parent. Learn about gang activity in your community. Participate your child’s education. Be a good example for your child.

Source: NC Gang Investigator’s Association


Parents can also prevent gang involvement by participating actively in their children’s education, for example by making contact with teachers and keeping abreast of learning progress or special needs. It can also be helpful to enroll children in beneficial activities – such as sports and music – that provide supervision and structure. Furthermore, it is important to get to know youth peers and other parents, to comprehend the social influences that may be at work in children’s and teenager’s lives.

Parents, teachers, and other community members must educate themselves on gang problems in their neighborhoods, towns, counties, and cities. Youth gangs are everywhere, and their threats to children and teenagers deserve our attention.

Perhaps most significantly, compassionate and considerate adults serve as role models for younger generations. If youth see and understand that fulfilling, successful, and satisfying lives can be achieved without gang involvement, they may not only avoid gangs, but they may commit themselves to positive self-growth.

James M. Frabutt, Ph.D. (336/217-9736; [email protected]) and Anne P. Buford, MPA work for the Center for Youth, Family, and Community Partnerships at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

To Learn More
In addition to local schools, governments, and police departments, helpful information on gang activity, prevention, and intervention is available from:

National Youth Gang Center. Affiliated with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the center assists policymakers, practitioners, and researchers <www.iir.com/nygc/>

National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. Offers resources for professionals, parents, and youth working to prevent violence committed by and against young people <www.safeyouth.org>

NC Gang Investigators Association. Addresses prevention and suppression of gang-related activity in NC and provides professional training/education to law enforcement officers and citizens <www.ncgangcops.org>

G.R.E.A.T. (Gang Resistance Education and Training). This school-based, law enforcement officer-instructed classroom curriculum aims to prevent delinquency, youth violence, and gang membership <www.great-online.org>, 800/726-7070

Boys & Girls Clubs of America (Gang Prevention/Intervention Through Targeted Outreach). A special gang prevention and intervention initiative targeting youth aged 6-18. Identifies and recruits delinquent youth, or those ‘at risk’ of delinquency, into ongoing club programs and activities <www.bgca.org/programs/specialized.asp>, 404/487-5700

For references and citations from this issue of Fostering Perspectives, click here.

Copyright 2006 Jordan Institute for Families