A Comprehensive Approach

Survey findings suggest that the most critical concerns in Indian country communities are the social problems that contribute to youth gang involvement, not gangs themselves. Respondents identified a variety of factors that promote delinquent behavior and gang activity, including parental apathy, erosion of family structure, low self-esteem, social problems in the community, and lack of positive activities for youth. Therefore, programs incorporating a range of strategies to prevent, control, and reduce youth crime in Indian country could effectively combat gangs. Although the likely focus of most Indian country communities will be prevention programs, community members should consider all three levels (i.e., prevention, intervention, and suppression), especially in larger communities where gang problems were reported to be more serious.

Further, community-specific strategies for combating youth gangs are most beneficial when based on a detailed assessment of the local gang problem. NYGC has developed both an assessment protocol and a comprehensive model for preventing and combating gang membership and activity that consists of a continuum of prevention, intervention, and suppression strategies (NYGC, 2002a, 2002b). It is particularly important that all community agencies collaborate in combining resources to develop the most comprehensive and effective approach to combating local gang problems (Howell, Egley, and Gleason, 2002; Starbuck, Howell, and Lindquist, 2001).


Described below are prevention programs that target the general population and seek to prevent delinquency and violence, which can be stepping stones to gang membership. Most of these school-based programs include a parental training and involvement component and focus on preventing general violence and building prosocial skills. It is important to note that these programs have not been evaluated specifically for their effects on potential gang involvement (Catalano et al.,1998) and, with the exception of two substance abuse programs, none of these programs has been evaluated specifically for effectiveness with Indian country youth.

General delinquency. A wide variety of classroom violence prevention curriculums are being implemented in schools across the country, and many of these have proven effective (Gottfredson, 2001). Selected programs are briefly described here (many others are reviewed in Howell,2003). Programs selected for inclusion here have reasonable implementation potential in Indian country, particularly in the more populated areas.

Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways (RIPPW) is an effective violence prevention curriculum for middle school students (Farrell and Meyer, 1997, 1998). The program builds knowledge, changes attitudes, and enhances youth skills for acting against violence. It also teaches children about the nature of violence and its consequences. The curriculum, which consists of 18 sessions over the course of 1 semester, teaches sixth grade students strategies for negotiating interpersonal conflicts nonviolently. Adult role models trained in the curriculum administer the weekly sessions. Peer mediation, team-building activities, small group work, and role-playing activities are used regularly. RIPPW appears to affect males and females differently, with boys—but not girls—exhibiting lower levels of violent behavior (e.g., fighting, threatening to hurt someone, or carrying weapons), suppressed anger, assault against teachers, and school suspensions. Girls showed improvements in problem solving.

Law-Related Education (LRE) (www.streetlaw.org) consists of K–12 classroom instruction designed to educate youth about the origin and role of law in key social systems, such as the family, community, school, and juvenile and criminal justice systems. LRE programs draw practical connections among the everyday lives of young people and the law, human rights, and democratic values. LRE programs have been effective in improving academic performance and preventing general delinquency (Maguin and Loeber,1996). In addition, some evidence shows that LRE prevents aggressive behavior (Gottfredson, 1990; Johnson and Hunter,1985).

Promoting a safe school environment and making all students feel safe may reduce the risk of gang involvement, but traditional school security measures such as security guards, metal detectors, and locker checks do not appear to be a solution, in and of themselves, to gang problems (Gottfredson and Gottfredson, 2001; Howell and Lynch, 2000). Additional interventions are needed. The Safe Schools Unit of the San Diego County (CA) Office of Education has developed a promising practical approach for increasing school safety and intervening in student conflicts, particularly gang-related situations (Sakamoto, 1996). The Safe Schools Unit has a Violence Prevention/Intervention (VPI) team that helps schools develop comprehensive safety plans. In addition to outlining school safety policies, procedures, and crisis response protocols, these plans include training teachers, students, and parents to address gangs and violence. The VPI team also operates a Rapid Response Unit that assists schools during crisis situations. This comprehensive approach, along with other prevention efforts and a history of multiagency partnerships, has improved the safety of San Diego schools.

A national assessment of school-based gang prevention and intervention programs (Gottfredson and Gottfredson,2001) concluded that many of them address gang involvement but that most of them are not well implemented. Nevertheless, consideration should be given to effective classroom violence prevention curriculums (Gottfredson, 2001) that can easily be added to traditional instruction in schools in Indian country.

Gang involvement. Survey respondents said community and school programs that addressed violence and gang activity were effective ways to prevent community youth from becoming involved in gang activity. As such, the Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) program10 may be an appropriate way to effectively reduce gang involvement in Indian country. Uniformed law enforcement officers teach the 13-week course mainly to middle school students (Esbensen and Osgood, 1997; Esbensenet al., 2001). In addition to educating students about the dangers of gang involvement, lessons emphasize cognitive-behavioral training, social skills development, refusal skills training, and conflict resolution. Modified curriculums have been developed for fifth and sixth graders and third and fourth graders. Multisite evaluations of G.R.E.A.T. show the program has small but positive effects on student attitudes and ability to resist peer pressure to join gangs (Palumbo and Ferguson, 1995; Esbensen et al., 2001). For example, students who received G.R.E.A.T. training had less self-reported delinquency, fewer gang affiliations, and greater commitment to school and prosocial peers than students who did not participate in the program (Esbensen et al., 2001). To date,G.R.E.A.T. has been implemented in seven Indian country communities, with the assistance of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Additionally, two G.R.E.A.T. officer training sessions for Bureau of Indian Affairs/Tribal Officers have graduated more than 50 officers, and plans exist for additional sessions in upcoming years.

Substance abuse. Perhaps the most compelling Indian country survey finding was the magnitude of social problems reported, specifically the number of communities citing alcohol abuse and drug abuse as a significant problem (96 percent and 88 percent, respectively). Because of the high incidence of alcohol and drug abuse, this area of prevention is particularly pertinent to the Indian population. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (1997) has identified a number of effective programs for preventing drug use and antisocial behavior among children and adolescents. Two of these programs have been implemented with Indian populations and show good potential for success in those communities.

The Strengthening Families Program is a 7-week curriculum designed to bring parents together with their 10- to 14-year-old children, with the goal of reducing substance abuse and other problem behaviors in youth. The program began as an effort to help substance-abusing parents improve their parenting skills and thus reduce their children’s risk factors (Kumpfer and Alvarado, 1998). It contains three elements: a children’s skills program, a parent training program, and a family skills training program.

This intervention approach has been evaluated in a variety of settings and with several racial and ethnic groups (Molgaard, Spoth, and Redmond, 2000), including Indian youth and families (Kumpfer, Molgaard, and Spoth, 1996; Molgaard and Spoth, 2001). Youth who completed the program had significantly lower rates of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use than youth in the control group. Other positive outcomes included reductions in family conflict, improvement in family communication and organization, and reductions in delinquency. The Iowa Strengthening Families Program, a revision of the initial program model, has been adapted for Indian populations by the Iowa University Extension to Families (www.extension.iastate.edu/sfp).

Preparing for the Drug Free Years (PDFY) is an effective program that decreases problem behaviors among teens by improving parenting practices to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors (Haggerty et al., 1999). The program’s goal is to empower parents of children ages 8 to 14 to reduce the likelihood that their children will abuse drugs and alcohol or develop other common adolescent problems. The flexible PDFY curriculum has been used with a broad range of families of various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds and is designed to reach adult learners regardless of learning style or level of education. To date, it has been implemented in conjunction with the Iowa Strengthening Families Program and used successfully with American Indian families (Harachi, Catalano, and Hawkins, 1997).

The Midwestern Prevention Project is another successful program for preventing the use of gateway substances (alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana) among low- and high-risk seventh and eighth graders (Johnson et al., 1990). The program is unique because it addresses all five of the risk factor domains:

  • All students are offered individual skills training.

  • Parents are provided training and opportunities for direct involvement with their children and their children’s schools.

  • Peers are involved in positive modeling.

  • The school is the central component for drug prevention programming, which includes a variety of social learning techniques, and policies are modified to discourage drug use.

  • Community policies and social norms about drug use are modified and clarified to set and reinforce clear behavioral standards.


Intervention programs focus on youth identified as being at risk of becoming delinquent or involved in a gang. These programs also address general delinquency.

General delinquency. The National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association (CASA) implemented the Tribal Court CASA project in 1994 to support programs in which volunteers act as advocates for abused or neglected American Indian and Alaska Native children (Frey, 2002). National CASA oversees two grants that assist tribal court programs: the National Grants Program and CASA Program Development for Native American Tribal Courts. The National Grants Program, administered in partnership with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, provides funding to help Indian communities develop and operate CASA programs. CASA Program Development for Native American Tribal Courts provides funds specifically to tribal communities that wish to implement a CASA program. Because problems vary from community to community, the Tribal Court CASA project tailors programs to individual communities’ needs. To date, no evaluation of program effectiveness has been performed.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) has implemented a number of programs that address important youth issues and that have shown particular promise with at-risk populations (www.bgca.org/programs). The success of its programs has prompted BGCA to open clubs in Indian country communities. Since the first club opened in Pine Ridge, SD, in 1992, the number of Boys & Girls Clubs in Indian country has expanded to 123 locations in 23 states, and the clubs serve nearly 80,000 American Indian youth. The Indian country Boys & Girls Clubs feature tailored programs that improve both the outcomes for youth participating in BGCA and the individual Indian community cultures. BGCA programs in Indian country include SMART Moves (Skills Mastery and Resistance Training, including drug and alcohol prevention and sexual abstinence) and Power Hour (afterschool tutoring) (Fogerty, 2002).

Gang involvement. Targeted Outreach, also operated by BGCA in Indian country, is a communitywide gang prevention program that intervenes with youth at risk for gang involvement, those in the “wannabe” stage, and current gang members. Targeted Outreach incorporates four objectives: community mobilization, recruitment, mainstreaming and programming, and case management. Local implementation of this program begins with mobilizing community leaders and club staff, who discuss local gang issues, clarify their roles, and design a strategy for offering youth alternatives to the gang lifestyle. Police departments, schools, social services agencies, and community organizations recruit at-risk youth into club programs in a nonstigmatizing way through direct outreach efforts and a referral network that links local clubs with courts. Once in BGCA, youth participate in programs based on their individual interests and needs.

The Targeted Outreach initiative has two components: Gang Prevention Through Targeted Outreach (GPTTO) and Gang Intervention Through Targeted Outreach (GITTO). The components are implemented separately, depending on the severity of gang problems near club locations in a particular city. The respective components try either to prevent high-risk youth from joining gangs (GPTTO) or to provide alternatives to the gang lifestyle by mainstreaming youth into club programming (GITTO).

In the prevention model (GPTTO), youth are recruited to participate in all aspects of Boys & Girls Club programming. The program has produced generally positive outcomes in behavior related to both school and delinquency measures, although the differences between the comparison group and those participating in the program were stronger for school-related behaviors than for delinquency and gang-related behaviors. Evaluations of youth behavior after participating in GPTTO for 1 year suggested that more frequent attendance was associated with a reduced likelihood of youth wearing gang colors, having contact with the juvenile justice system, and exhibiting delinquent behaviors. Frequent attendance was also associated with improved school outcomes and higher levels of positive peer and family relationships (Arbreton and McClanahan, 2002).

In the intervention model (GITTO), youth are recruited to participate in a project staffed by the Boys & Girls Club but run separately from daily club activities (either after typical club hours or on a one-on-one basis). Programs are offered in five core areas: character and leadership development, education and career development, health and life skills, the arts, and sports, fitness, and recreation. Like GPTTO, GITTO has produced modest positive outcomes for youth participating in the program. More frequent attendance at GITTO was associated with less involvement in gang-associated behaviors, less contact with the juvenile justice system, and more positive school engagement (Arbreton and McClanahan, 2002).


Suppression techniques are aimed at individuals who are already gang members or participating in criminal activity (Howell, 2000) and involve the police, courts, and corrections. Law enforcement officers have combatted gangs with specialized gang units, prosecution, specialized probation programs, and ordinances such as curfew laws, antiloitering laws, and civil injunctions (Curry and Decker, 2003; Esbensen, 2000; Howell, 2000).

Juvenile courts can make a significant contribution to reducing gang involvement. An effective juvenile probation program in Peoria County, IL, targets juvenile offenders who have been placed on probation for gang-related behavior or substance abuse (Adams, 2002). The program consists of several elements essential to intensive supervision probation, including small caseloads, frequent contacts with probationers, distinct and graduated phases to structure movement through the program, substance abuse assessments, rehabilitation programs, and behavioral controls. Evaluation of the program has demonstrated positive effects; nearly 60 percent of program participants were not charged with a new criminal offense, and approximately 65 percent did not receive any technical violations while in the program.

Implementing a Continuum of Programs

A number of grant programs have been implemented to help Indian country communities develop prevention, intervention, and suppression programs that address juvenile delinquency, violence, and victimization. OJJDP’s Tribal Youth Program (TYP), dedicated to preventing and controlling delinquency and improving the juvenile justice system in American Indian communities (Andrews, 1999), is one such program. Through grant funds, training, and technical assistance, TYP works to meet the unique needs of individual communities by—

  • Reducing, controlling, and preventing crime by and against tribal youth.

  • Providing interventions for court-involved youth.

  • Improving tribal juvenile justice systems.

  • Providing alcohol and drug-use prevention programs.

To date, 161 tribal communities have received TYP funding. The Michigan Public Health Institute, in partnership with the Native American Institute at Michigan State University, is currently helping five tribes evaluate programs they developed with TYP funds (Fung and Wyrick, 2001). Because communities have used these resources in varying ways, not all programs have been evaluated.

The Native American Alliance Foundation (NAAF) was awarded a cooperative agreement to provide American Indian and Alaska Native tribes with training and technical assistance to develop or enhance their juvenile justice systems. A primary responsibility of this program is to offer effective, culturally appropriate training and technical assistance that addresses the problems faced by Indian youth and their families. Through such training, NAAF helps communities in Indian country develop a more comprehensive approach to addressing juvenile delinquency, violence, and victimization.

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Youth Gangs in Indian Country OJJDP Bulletin March 2004