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Adrian Huerta on the School Experiences of Gang-Associated Youth

  • Adrian Huerta
  • July 01 2021
  • PC98-2021

Adrian H. Huerta
Adrian H. Huerta

In this episode we hear from Adrian Huerta of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Huerta shares his research that came from talking to gang-associated youth in high school, what their education experiences looked like, and how that translated to what they thought about the options they had when it came to going to college.

Adrian Huerta was a 2019–2020 IRP Emerging Poverty Scholar Fellow.

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Chancellor: Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor for this episode we’re going to hear from Adrian Huerta of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. He’s a terrific scholar and IRP had the honor of supporting his work while he was a fellow in the IRP Emerging Poverty Scholars Program in 2019 and 2020. And I was able to talk with him about some of his research that came from talking to gang associated youth in high school, about what their education experiences looked like and how that translated to what they thought about the options they had when it came to going to college. So, let’s turn to the interview.

Chancellor: Professor Huerta, you’re an assistant professor of education at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. Can you just as we kind of get rolling here—and I so appreciate you taking the time to do this—can you talk a little bit about the kind of research that you do?

Huerta: Yeah, absolutely. My research primarily is in three buckets. I look at boys and young men of color, college access and equity and gang associated youth. And I really try to understand the intersections between these different lived realities and how that frames and shapes educational opportunities or barriers for these populations.

Chancellor: We’re talking about work you’ve done, looking specifically at gang associated Latino young men and their educational trajectories towards college. And this is interesting, but what led you to look into this?

Huerta: That’s a great question. So, you know, I think one, familial and lived experiences of just family members being involved in gangs at different stages of their lives, but then also looking at a lot of my peers in middle school and high school and seeing that they were in although supersmart academically, they weren’t engaged and supported and many of them just joined gangs because of various factors that contributed to them not feeling connected to school or having relationships with schools. And the more and more that I do this work, I see like how gangs act as kind of like a pseudo safety net for gang youth because they provide support, validation, sometimes financial resources and a space to feel like you belong.

Chancellor: We use the phrase and gang associated youth here. And I want to break down a little bit what that means. Can you tell me and what are we talking about here when we’re talking about gang associated youth and, you know, roughly how many people are in these situations and what do we know?

Huerta: Across the U.S., the number varies from anywhere from one million, one point one million to about one point five million youth across the U.S. self-report gang membership. And that’s primarily from ages 11 to 18. Young people that are involved in gangs. And I think what’s really important is that gangs are just an urban problem. It’s a suburban problem. It’s a rural problem. It’s not just a Latino issue. It’s African American youth, white youth, indigenous youth, Asian American youth. So, gangs are everywhere. Where it gets really tricky is what constitutes a gang, you know, in the eyes of youth versus adults versus educators versus police departments and how we figure out who’s actually involved in a gang and what does that look like versus a group of young men or a group of young women that are associated and having a little group of peers that are just engaging in maybe in sometimes delinquent acts versus continuous delinquent acts where they have a group name and moniker and they engage in criminal acts. It’s sustained. And I think that’s where we’ve for the last one hundred years have been arguing back and forth like this. Is this a gang versus this gang is it’s a hybrid gang. There’s so much dialog and discourse between criminologists, sociologists and now including myself, education scholars on what is a gang, what does it mean and how do we pinpoint it?

Chancellor: What do you see as sort of the interaction between, say, you know, gang association and issues of economic vulnerability, social vulnerability? Could you help us out there?

Huerta: So once a young person is connected to a gang, we see immediate negative impacts on academic performance and engagement from statistical perspectives. You know, the work that I’m doing really starts looking at the relationships between teachers and counselors and other school personnel, which kind of in how that frames often a negative school environment for kids that are on the social and academic margins. So these kids, once they’re labeled or perceived to be in a gang, their treatment in school really just goes down. Opportunities are withheld from them. They’re not provided the same benefit of the doubt or support or engagement that you would see with other kids that are maybe just having developmental challenges or struggles and trying to be safe and connected in other people’s work. They’ve documented that once someone’s getting involved as a young person, life outcomes, when they become adults, they can pinpoint continued poverty, inability to have careers and steady employment, involvement in the justice system. There’s all these factors that I think just linger. But I think what’s really missing from that conversation is a lot of these issues were happening to these young people before they joined a gang. So, like there was a lot of instability in the household or other or maybe lack of investment from city, state and local government and other types of governments to provide resources, to engage, to proactively engage young people so they don’t default to gangs. It’s like this conversation or it’s a space where do we point at the individual youth, the families or the community context that contribute to why kids or young people join gangs and engage in those acts and behaviors. It’s a really important problem because only 50 percent of gang youth graduate from high school. We know what the research says about even having a high school diploma tied to chances to study income.

Chancellor: Looking at this issue of educational trajectory and specifically college access, you know, I was a first gen college student. And I remember for me, you know, I mean, like I like colleges, just kind of baffling the whole application process. What I had to do, I didn’t really even know, like what I didn’t know in some ways. And, you know, for students and vulnerable populations or just who don’t have sort of a college background and their family history, how do they how did they learn about college and how do we do that?

Huerta: Absolutely. That’s a great question. With the work that I’ve been doing for the last five years is looking at gang associated youth and their college opportunities and pathways. What I’m finding is that many of the gang youth that I’ve interviewed have aspirations to earn an associate’s, a certificate, a bachelors or even beyond that, a law degree, master’s degrees. They want to earn those things within the scaffolding of support in schools that they primarily attend, isn’t there? So it’s challenges of councilors being unwilling to engage them, to support them, to share the information again because of their perceived or real gang association, because then there’s issues of suspensions, expulsions, you know, being free or reduced lunch. There’s all these things that are interacting that signal to educators. These kids aren’t interested in school, but on the contrary, they are really interested in school. But their performance and engagement in K through 12 isn’t what educators prefer. So these kids are saying, I want to go to college, I want to do something. But then you start asking them the mechanics of how do you do it? And it’s not there. And that’s why the schools need to be proactive in supporting gang associated youth or community-based organizations and supporting these youth through mentoring, through scaffolding of college preparation so they can have an opportunity to enroll and be successful in higher education. Similarly, higher education needs to be willing to receive them and support them, because so often community colleges and universities assume that students know how to be successful in college. So then if these students do it, gang associated students do enroll in higher education and they’re not connected to the appropriate infrastructure will lose them in a semester or two because they might not know how to finance their school. They might not know the differences between majors and minors. Then there’s all these additional barriers that many first-generation students experience because of financial pressures, confusions about support systems, never asking for help. All these other pieces come into play, and then it could be really overwhelming for students who are really academically vulnerable in k through 12.

Chancellor: I want to turn to some of the interviews that you’ve done. Right. And so you had a paper in urban education in 2020 called “College Is… Focusing on the college knowledge of gang associated with young men.” And you interviewed some high school students for his project. Can you talk to me about these folks that you interviewed and who they are and what their situations looked like?

Huerta: I think before I jump into the into the nitty gritty of these young men, I think it’s really important to say that the gang membership for youth, that on average, it’s about less than two years. Right. Kids join gangs around middle school and then they stop being gang involved around their sophomore year. And then they, for whatever reason, they just stop engaging in gang associated activities. I think that’s a critical piece to bring up. For these young men, they were attending an alternative school. And on the western region of the U.S., we can call them alternative schools, opportunity schools or behavioral schools. And often these are for students who have been removed from traditional high schools because of social or academic behaviors. You know, maybe they brought a weapon to school, or they were under the influence or there’s too many truancies… these factors that signal the student needs an additional intervention. So once these students are sent to alternative school, the resources are often very minimal compared to traditional school. So academic engagement and curriculum. Actually, the quality is often lower, so then that means you have students more likely to disengage because the infrastructure isn’t there in these schools. As I spoke to these young men and asked them about their lives, they really highlighted so many different things that were happening in their lives that kind of contributed to their gang involvement, what they saw for their future hopes and aspirations and religion. I was really just trying to figure out what pathways that they were going they wanted to go and who was giving them information and where they want to go and how accurate that information was. Because often when we think about getting associated kids, we don’t see them as kids. We see them as gang members first. I think that’s why I am very intentional about saying children are young men, because these are 14, 15, 16-year-old kids who really still have a lot of life to live. But unfortunately, the educators in these schools already paint this picture. This kid’s going to go to jail. This kid is not going to do anything with their lives. This kid is going to be on welfare for the future. When these lowered expectations are set on kids, they internalize it and then they behave and then they just react to it. When they know that teachers don’t care about them, aren’t invested in them, then we kind of we see that we see that play out in real time, because I think that’s something that really stood out from the work that I did. It was as soon as these young people realized that I wasn’t a teacher or a police officer or someone from the district office investigating them, they’re really open about all the different things that they were experiencing in their lives, all the different challenges that are experiencing, and also many of the negative interactions that they had with teachers and counselors and others across their educational trajectories.

Chancellor: You had said earlier on that so many of these young men or kids that you talk to, that they show actually a lot of interest in in college or community college. Tell me about that.

Huerta: The way that I set up these conversations was like, you know, if you didn’t have anything on your back, what would you want to do in your life? And really giving kids a chance to dream, I think was really powerful. Know, because there like I want to become an architect. I want to do construction management. I want to become a chef. I want to do I want to become a lawyer and work with kids like me. I want to do I want to become an engineer in all these different professions, given the opportunity. And that’s why it is so heartbreaking about this work is like how do we make sure that all kids have an opportunity to dream big but then have the support to reach those dreams? And I think some would argue or not, everyone needs to go to college. Right. Or some people say not everyone needs to go to college, be successful. But data says otherwise, whether it’s a certificate, an associate’s degree or a bachelors, we need those tools in order to have a chance to be successful. And that’s just what it is. So I really push back against that the often deficit perspective that those kids don’t need it, because I think a lot of people say, well, those kids don’t need it. You know, like they’ll be fine with a high school diploma. But again, national data says otherwise, you know, to really have a chance for social mobility. And I think that’s one of the again, one of the heartbreaking parts is like, you know, when I was initially doing this work as a doctoral student, you know, like it really gave me a chance to be able to connect. But now, as a professor, it’s like I wish I had partners to be able to step in, you know, whether it was a team of social workers or mental health therapists, community planners to do interdisciplinary work, to step in and be like, what can we do in this space to create an ecosystem of support, to help students reach the goals that they want to? Because often with the work that we do, it might be limited to one to three years. And how can you create institutional change in one to three years? Because you might spend two years building inroads with people to trust you. Right. To really trust you, to hear you out and to be open to a new opportunity or to change. Because sometimes there’s so much bureaucracy in school districts, so much red tape, that it’s really hard to form a strong relationship with someone. If your grant windows are so small.

Chancellor: Let’s talk about what you’re actually hearing from them about their sort of experiences in school, you know, their counselors, their teachers they’re working with, I mean, when it comes to how they’re learning about college or how they’re even, you know, hearing about their sort of own high school, you know, academic tracks, what sort of things are they hearing? What are they seeing?

Huerta: One question that I asked people is like, tell me a story about a time you felt cared for and respected by a teacher counselor. And he responds… there’s no response. Right, and I think that’s really telling that they can’t highlight a specific moment when a teacher counselor treated them well, treated them like a person, treated them, you know, like with someone that’s experience, pain and trauma. And I think that’s really troubling. Right, because in school, you should be able to interact with trusting adults that are invested in you, that care about you, that want to see you be successful. So, when you talk to people and they say, look, no, I didn’t experience like I didn’t have anyone, then what does that say about what’s happening in schools? And again, like, I’m going to tie that to maybe some teachers and counselors being burned out, you know, not having, again, the resources to be able to engage 30 or 40 students, especially in urban classrooms, where you’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of students and social emotional health issues that might be happening in a school, especially if you’re dealing with pregnancy, is if you’re dealing with discipline issues, testing and scheduling all these things. How do you make like how do you create bandwidth to be able to engage gang kids in a way because they have so there’s so much need. Right. And I think that really captures it. And, you know, even as a as a revisit my data, like I remember one participant saying a teacher or a school leader said I was a danger to the learning environment. Another administrative assistant in a school said to a student. You know, you’re just going to be dead or end up in jail, so it doesn’t matter if you come back. When you hear that as a ninth grader, 10th grader or 11th grader, I think that really shapes your relationship with school to know that people don’t care about you, people don’t value you people. Again, it’s a loss of humanity when you can’t see a young person for who they are as a young person, as a 15-year-old or 13 year old or 17 year old, because, you know, if anything, it’s like how do we step in and redirect people into positive things? And I think that’s where I’m really trying to highlight when my work is that these kids are full of energy and given the chance, like we could really see the good people that they are. But in the situation that they’re in, there’s so much, like I said, pain and trauma. You have to create like all these layers to protect yourself because of what’s happened in your household or in your community or to family members or friends. People just kind of nonchalantly say, yeah, my best friend was killed, my cousin was killed, an uncle was killed due to gang violence, or this person is in jail or this person’s in jail. You have to create protective factors in order to be able to persevere. And if a teacher or counselor isn’t aware of all the trauma these kids have experienced. Then how do you forge a trusting relationship with someone who’s experienced so much pain and that takes a lot of work simultaneously? I would encourage teachers and counselors not to make promises with kids that they can’t keep ready because then again, that fractures the social bond between educator and student.

Chancellor: One of the sort of visual images that you had in this paper is of outdated college guidebooks that were literally dusty, right. So, you saw that as you were talking to a counselor. How does that show with some of the larger things that are going there in terms of what was being shared with these students are not being shared when it comes to their college futures?

Huerta: I’m going to say it’s two things. One, sometimes counselors aren’t prepared or don’t have. Their own experiences like helping students build up their college readiness, their college preparation, so it’s something that we’ve seen in in counseling programs or in school counseling programs is that college access and college readiness isn’t a required course. So how do you make sure that counselors are aware of the intricacies of the complicated college admissions process if it’s not integrated into academic programs? And that’s a serious issue in the type of preparation the school counselors go through and then expected to be in a K through 12 school where they might have really good mental health and counseling skills, but not college counseling skills. Right. I think that’s a push to those academic programs, like how do you, again, make it a natural requirement to build in college access and readiness into graduate programs? Another thing, too, is in some school cultures, they might not push college going the same way that other schools do. So maybe in the low-income urban schools, they might talk about going to college, but they might not have the relationships of local schools the same way the affluent high-income schools do. Right where the high income, affluent schools, they have partnerships with the local state colleges, liberal arts or public large public universities where they can come in and they know that they can recruit students at this one particular school and will step over the low income, underperforming school because they won’t find the type of student that they want to recruit in that school. And recent research has highlighted the large flagship universities again will step over the low-income schools for the high income schools in out of state college recruitment and local recruitment.

Chancellor: One issue that for better or worse, we’ve been hearing about lately is the variation, the difference in school or police discipline practices for young men of color, especially. Right? That’s got to be playing a factor here. What did you see in your own work? And was that something that was at play for these young men that you were talking to?

Huerta: In another paper that I did in a journal, Boyhood Studies, I talk about the types of violence that youth experience in K–12. And one of the pieces was school resource officers and just how there was uneven application of school rules for Latino students versus white students at the heavier use of school discipline policies for the students I was interviewing versus peers that engage in similar acts and behaviors or even in moments, especially in these urban schools where I studied, where you talked about police officers going into the cafeteria and spraying mace in the air to break up fights. Right. So. Again, like the types of punishment that happen in in low-income schools is often okayed or it’s believed it’s given a pass believing that, you know, these kids, again, are kids. Right? So, it’s this belief that these kids are unable to manage themselves, unable to self-regulate themselves. So, the heavy hand of police needs to be steady and fierce. And I guess my push in the push of others is like, how do we remove school resource officers? And these people replace them with counselors or mental health therapists to help the kids with these acts and behaviors and in specifically going to the gangs. It’s I do believe that there’s research out there says that it’s only five to 10 percent of gangs that are really violent and the rest aren’t engaging in those types of acts and behaviors that could be more social support. It could be drug dealing, but maybe it’s not the level of violence that people believe is really happening. So, I think, again, that knowing that could, I hoped, would help reframe people’s understanding of what gang youth are, who gang youth are and kind of what’s the possibilities for them. And I and with the work that I’ve done, I really hope that I can shed a shed new light about, you know, what these kids really want to do with their lives if they’re given support. And I think that’s what’s missing from this work, from other people’s work, is that we often don’t see new possibilities for them. We just kind of we foreclose and create all these unnecessary barriers for these kids that really want to change and do something better and different.

Chancellor: So as there’s kind of a wrap of, you know, an approach to wrap this up here, I want to talk about these new possibilities. You know, I think there are a couple of directions that we should focus on that we can focus on is one and what a what new possibilities look like for these kids. Right. And then I guess for the second part of that is like for schools. And as we’re thinking about policy and the way alternative schools might be run, you know what do you recommend based on based on your research here?

Huerta: So, in California, we have this survey called the California Healthy Kids Survey and kids take this survey from seventh grade all the way up to 12th grade. And there are modules that focus on gang youth and some school districts collect that data. Other schools don’t. Our safest bet is that we know that there’s about 50 thousand kids in California. They’re getting associated and that’s a large number. And then when we start thinking about the number of gang kids that graduate from high school being at 50 percent. We’re talking about twenty-five thousand kids we know will not graduate from high school. So, I think that could be an immediate point where school leaders and superintendents can figure out how do we support gang kids. Right. And sometimes these gang kids are also foster kids. Sometimes they’re also homeless kids. These kids can fall into multiple layers of vulnerability. It’s not maybe as appealing politically to engage with gang kids because of our preconceived notions of who they are or what they can do it, that they’re dangerous. That’s not where it’s a lot easier to just get rid of them by sending them to continuation schools and letting them phase out without the high school diploma. So, I think when we think about the treatment and the judgment, but also understanding where these gang kids are and where we can direct, you know, individualized resources and frame and form those partnerships. And now it’s whether the state and whether local governments want to invest those resources and in a sustainable way, because many of the grants are two-year gang intervention and then that’s it. Or it could be a mentoring club without a connection to career preparation. So, like, there’s different ways that I think are important to build up kids’ self-efficacy, to see new possibilities. And I think it’s so much about don’t be in a gang, don’t do it. It’s bad for you versus like, hey, we know you’re in a gang. How do we create other pathways for you? How do we support you to see that there’s so many other things you can do instead of focusing on increasing your street reputation and trying to go to jail or trying to do all these other things, because, again, you know, many of these gang kids, don’t think these other avenues are available to them for whatever reason, people think once you’re in a gang, you can never step away from it. That’s your life for the rest of your life. And for some people I’ve interviewed that they’ve been in gangs for 10, 15, 20 years. But for the most part, people are involved in gangs two to three years and then they just step away. And if we think about it with respect to other national data, so if a kid is in a gang from 11 to 14, that means he still has 15 to 18 or 19 to graduate from high school, go to college or go to the military or find a career. There’s all of these other spaces where they can have around two with their life. And how do we want to give kids a second chance?

Chancellor: Thanks so much to Professor Adrian Huerta for taking the time to talk about his work with us. Again, a lot of this interview drew, on the paper “College is… Focusing on the college knowledge of a gang associated Latino young men.” You can find Dr. Huerta on Twitter at @AdrianHuertaPhD. This podcast was produced as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office or any other agency of the federal government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Martin DeBoer. Thanks for listening. 


Child Development & Well-Being, Children, Education & Training, Inequality & Mobility, Justice System, Juvenile Justice, K-12 Education, Policing, Postsecondary Education, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Transition to Adulthood