Gang Intervention: Keeping Watch in City Schools

A month after a take-down involving 19 alleged gang members in Central Harlem, community leaders are pointing to data showing an increasing number of school-age kids are showing gang allegiances.

The number of young people identified as gang members skyrocketed from 150 to 1,000 from 2007 to 2009, according to a task force appointed by the Harlem Community Justice Center.

The NYPD did not respond to requests for a response to the new report, which relied on police data, and said it doesn't officially track gang-related violence.

The city schools were touched by several incidents involving gang violence this fall, including the death of a Murry Bergtraum High School basketball player who was killed in a dispute involving rival gangs at her Harlem housing complex.

Though the NYPD has a gang unit, the Department of Education also has its own experts to work in the schools.

Norbert Davidson, a former school safety officer, runs the DOE's Gang Prevention and Intervention Unit, which dates back to 1994 under the old Board of Education, and was briefly run by the NYPD after it took over the school safety division in 1998.

Davidson said gang-affiliated students tend to be involved in turf crews that take over parts of housing complex.

“These teams are just as violent [as better-known gangs],” he said.

Younger students often join gangs because of online bullying and pressure through social media. These crews take control through bullying and drug dealing, he said.

Davidson’s unit visits dozens of schools each month. He said after-school programs can help steer young people away from gang activity. But many schools have had to scale back these services because of budget cuts.

Davidson also said his unit has trained more than 800 school administrators over the past two years. Principals are told about the latest trends in gang behavior, and how to respond effectively by reporting graffiti, for example, instead of removing it immediately. The unit also holds workshops for teens and brings in social service organizations.

But Davidson's unit only has three full-time members and the Harlem Community Justice Center is calling for its expansion, among several other recommendations aimed at combating gangs.

The DOE said it appreciates the Justice Center's recommendations and while there is no additional funding for the unit, it is updating its Gang Intervention Manual and will post it online once completed.

Some schools also take their own action, included Harlem Renaissance High School, where principal Nadav Zeimer said his small transfer school doesn’t have a lot of gang activity, but he was concerned enough about his students to organize a “rescue” class for young men who may be affiliated with gangs.

He hired a staffer from the group Street Corner Resources to work with his students.