Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to send state troopers to Long Island schools to address growing gang violence will not succeed without the full support of local communities.
The plan lacks a key component — engaging stakeholders. Anti-gang programs work only with community support and a full understanding of local conditions, but school administrators say they first learned of Cuomo’s plan at a news conference last month.
In 2010, as deputy commissioner of the state Division of Human Rights, I deployed with members of the FBI Anti-Gang Task Force to two of the most gang-infested areas at the time, Newburgh and Hempstead Village.
We had clear mission: Educate teachers and talk with students about the futility of gang life. There is no generic anti-gang program. Every community faces specific challenges that demand specific solutions. Before we approached a school, we studied the scope, the scale and nature of local gang activities. In Newburgh, the drug trade drove gang violence. In Hempstead Village, the battle was over turf.
Any plan must involve educating teachers and a detailed intervention strategy.
“I thought those beads were some kind of music thing,” a teacher in Newburgh said, after learning about bracelets and necklaces worn by Latin Kings members. Knowing the signs — tattoos and blue-and-black bandannas favored by MS-13 members, for instance — can help teachers identify current and prospective gang members.
In my experience, adults are unlikely to talk a kid out of a gang. So, any effort also must include disrupting recruitment. Start by recognizing that many teens join gangs because they are alienated or for protection.
At Hempstead High School, the 2010 student population was split between Latino and African-American students with only a handful of white and Asian students. None of the security guards was fluent in Spanish. Latino kids targeted by predominantly black gangs — the Bloods and Crips — felt they had no legitimate source of protection.
I was skeptical about that description from my FBI partner, but our first turn at the backpack X-ray machine proved her right. The third bag of the first day had a machete. The student wasn’t a gangbanger — not yet. He said he was targeted for violence in school. He didn’t have enough English to enlist the protection of guards. He was at high risk for gang recruitment because he lived in a single-parent family with a mostly absent adult. We were able to keep the machete out of the school and provide some protection for the child.
It’s well and good for a state trooper to tell kids gangs are bad, but the words are meaningless unless they come with an alternative. Effective education requires work outside of the campus, before and after the school bells. A trooper in a school is forgotten by 4 p.m. unless he or she is on the streets or in the parks after hours.
In Newburgh, that point person was Assistant Special Agent in Charge James Gagliano, a graduate of West Point. He was well-known in town as a coach and organizer of sports teams. He knew the kids by name, and could directly approach an at-risk teen. The same thing happened in Hempstead. A Dominican sergeant from the local police department got kids to listen because they knew her, knew her children, knew her from the supermarket and the parks. She had more street cred on Peninsula Boulevard than the human rights guy from Long Beach.
Cops in schools can help fight gangs. But they have to be integrated into daily life, not just parachuted in for a photo-op. Education requires consistency. Cuomo’s plan could work with a bit of collaboration.
James Mulvaney, a former Newsday reporter, is an adjunct professor in the Law and Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.