Professional Gang Costume

I grew up in white, middle class suburbia. I was completely ill equipped to understand the gang culture in the school district I began working in as a school psychologist. The closest I got to experiencing anything gang related growing up was when I saw West Side Story, Breakin’, and Breakin’ Two: Electric Boogaloo. Turns out, there is very little dancing about in perfect random synchronicity involved in the real world of urban education. The Crips and Bloods do not have a dance-off, in which they all learn a little something about how similar they are via passion for dance.

Back my tale of ignorance.

My first day as an intern school psychologist, I had my most respectable-looking outfit on. I wore this responsible red sweater and crisp gray trouser pants with red kitten heels that said, “I am not 23 and have no idea what I’m doing, I am accomplished, professional woman with many many urban education skills.” Turns out, the red sweater and shoes actually said, “I claim the Norteño gang” but how should I have known that? The Norteños could have been that great new boy band for all I knew.

Years later, I have successfully expunged all red and blue outfits from my closet. But what else have I learned? When I first started out in a school with heavy gang activity, I was armed only with idealism and a Master Plan for Saving the Children that I had written in my dissertation on resilience of low-income adolescents.* But as I strode up the steps on my first day to the main entrance of my assigned middle school in my professional gang-banger costume, it was clear that I didn’t get it.

The last 6 years, I have learned some things about gangs. Bit by bit, I listen to the stories of my students and piece together a narrative of the dynamics that are so foreign to me. Each child has a story to tell. I worked with one such middle school girl who explained to me that she was picked on all through elementary school and got fed up and sought out the gang for protection. One boy couldn’t focus on the assessment I was doing with him, and it turned out he was trying to get out of a gang and his life was in danger. Some kids asked me if they could transfer to a school that had more of their gang there because they were at a rival gang’s school and were outnumbered. I have counseled kids who have lost family members to gang violence, lost some students to gang violence, and been at schools during drive-bys.

I have also learned that I don’t know a lot of things about gangs. The problems these students carry are so complex. The kids understand the dynamics though, if you are open to hearing their stories. One of the only things I can do sometimes is empathize with the student about how hard of a situation they are in. It is a very powerless situation to be in as a mental health professional. What I do know is that no matter what the student’s situation, the 3 C’s of Resilience are what guide me in developing interventions. These 3 C’s have been shown to be positive developmental assets for students in the face of adversity:

1) Caring: The student has a positive caring and responsive adult in his/her life

2) Competence: The student feels competent in at least one area (doesn’t have to be academic)

3) Confidence: The student feels that they have some control over their lives and feel confident he/she can achieve their goals

If I can facilitate any of these three Cs for students involved or interested in gangs, I’m doing my job. But honestly, sometimes I wish I could dance away the gang problems, possibly in manner of Kevin Bacon dancing away his fury in a warehouse in the drama that I always thought was a comedy, Footloose.

*Read and thoroughly enjoyed by ones of fives of people.

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Comments on Professional Gang Costume

  1. Denise says:

    Hi Dr. Bell,

    Another great post! I just started my 1st year as a School Psych this week- very green…but very eager! And wouldn’t you know it, a kid brought a gun to school, only a pre-teen, in a quiet little town.

    My office is in the area where all the police, security principals were gathering and the only thing they wanted me to do was to have the kid sit with me..I’m just getting to know the politics, but should I ask them if the kid needs counseling from me? I just felt superfluous, but I don’t know if that’s how it’s supposed to be?? Please help =-)

    Thank you,
    Denise

  2. Oh Denise!

    I have been there. What a way to start out your first year. My first year I was by the security office and dean as well, and it was good and bad. Good because I always knew what was going on and if any of my students were in trouble I could do on-the-spot de-escalation or counseling. It was bad because every crisis became my crisis and I couldn’t get any of my assessments done.

    Know that just sitting with a kid and modeling calmness is helpful in these situations. The kid is clearly troubled for bringing the gun, and will likely need counseling. Your role that day was “crisis counselor” and you did just that, just by being a calming force in the storm. I see your follow-up role as a facilitator: asking the principal questions that need to be asked, such as:

    Does the student already have a counselor off-site, and if so, can you get consent to talk to that person?, Was the student in special education and will require a manifestation determination meeting? Is there now a question of ED? I’d go get his cum folder and see what his history is. If this is his first offense, then ED isn’t probably the route I’d go (but it is often the route admin goes, right away). But if the kid has a longstanding hx of outrageous behavior despite interventions, then set an SST meeting or team meeting and discuss a short term safety plan and a long term plan.

    In general, I find that in situations such as these, people jump the gun (no pun intended) and throw a bunch of interventions at a kid without thoughtful consideration of what will help the most. I see my job as a school psych to make sure that the data is gathered to make a good decision. If that decision is counseling with you, then you know it was thought out. Seriously, I had times when I was seeing a kid because they “needed counseling” only to find out they were seeing 2 other therapists! More is not better. No kid wants to spill their guts 3 times a week to different people.

    OKAY, longest comment ever. It’s just food for thought for you. Also check with your colleague who was assigned to that school before to see what his/her experience was with the way their system works for crisis intervention.

    Good luck!

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