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Excerpted from Chapter 9: Mediating Conflicts Involving Youth Gangs in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen

You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist. — Golda Meir


Suggestions for Mediating Gang Disputes

The actual process for mediating conflicts between gangs is similar to the process used to mediate any large group dispute. All of the strategies coordinators and mediators employ to manage the complexity of large group disputes, strategies discussed in depth in Chapter 8, are relevant here. Read that chapter for the basics. Special considerations that apply to gang mediations include:

  • Work closely with community-based individuals and agencies. As one gang intervention specialist put it: "Everything that happens in the neighborhood, happens in school." One community that had six rival gangs found that each level of their six-story high school was "controlled" by a different gang. When a fight or other dramatic gang-related incident occurs in the neighborhood, educators feel the effects in their classrooms the next day.
  • It is important that school-based mediators collaborate with individuals and agencies who either work with gang-involved youth, or who gang members respect and regard as community leaders. The basic advantages of including support people in large group mediation sessions are discussed in Chapter 8. As far as gang disputes are concerned, support people can:

    • help mediators learn about the gangs
    • enable mediators to build trust with gang members by serving as a bridge between school culture and gang culture
    • arrange preliminary meetings with gang members, something which in and of itself can be a difficult task
    • speak with gang members who don't attend school and request that they respect any agreement that student gang members create
    • connect gang members with on-going programs and services
    • help with follow-up and support of an agreement
    • depending on their skills, serve as mediators or mediation assistants

    Mediation coordinators also report that gang-affiliated students sometimes come to them for assistance when they no longer want to be involved in gangs. Coordinators can refer these students to community-based gang specialists who can help with the difficult and potentially dangerous task of extricating themselves from gang life.

  • Emphasize the trust building process. Gangs devote a good deal of their energy to determining who is "in" or "out." This helps the group cohere, and it is sometimes necessitated by damaging secrets that if revealed could lead to the arrest and even death of gang members. Because of this last fact, the expression: "Once in — never out" is the de facto motto of many gangs.
  • In addition, gang members who live in chronically depressed communities are used to well-meaning individuals like school-based mediators offering short-term help and then disappearing. This serves to increase the distrust they have for outsiders.

    School mediators must be cognizant of this dynamic and understand that building trust is a slow process where gangs are concerned. Though mediators should not tolerate inappropriate gang behavior, relationships must be based upon mutual respect. Gang members are more likely to change their behavior when adults believe in them and see them as people first, not only as gang members. Community-based gang specialists are a model here: They are often former gang members themselves who live in the same neighborhood as the gangs with which they work.

    Gang-affiliated students are especially likely to feel alienated and uncomfortable in school. Strive to get to know them before one needs to know them. After identifying potential gang members, reach out to them whenever possible: say hello in the halls, joke with them in the cafeteria line, etc. Because some gang members associate niceness with weakness, it is sometimes best to be restrained initially. Simple gestures, even if ignored at first, can begin the trust-building process.

    When introducing the mediation process to gang members, explain the guarantee of confidentiality, and any limits upon it, immediately and forthrightly. Strive to enable gang members to make their own decisions at every turn, including whether to try the process at all. Sometimes this means presenting mediation as an option to these students, and then waiting for them to come back. If and when the mediation process begins, start with extensive private sessions to provide a safe setting in which gang-affiliated youth can openly discuss their concerns.