The fight that broke out in a hallway at Cardozo Education Campus in the District last month was not an uncommon event, but the consequences of involvement were serious for two students: both were taken into custody and suspended for 12 days.
Their penalties — and the resulting criminal charges against a 19-year-old junior — were harsh in part because authorities identified the students as gang members. One of the youths allegedly used a slur referring to a third student as a member of MS-13, police wrote in an incident report, and authorities labeled them as members of the 18th Street gang.
As law enforcement and school leaders work to keep their hallways clear of gang violence, some educators and community advocates worry that students are being unfairly singled out for gang involvement without evidence and that minority students are being targeted for harsher punishments even when they have no gang affiliation.
Stephanie Beer, a social studies teacher at the Columbia Heights school, said that students often fight, but they are rarely arrested unless it is determined to be gang related. She is concerned that a crackdown on gang activity is snaring students it shouldn’t, undermining her work in the classroom.
“It seems that no matter what I do to prepare them to go to college, they may end up in prison due to decisions of the police, security and administrators,” Beer said.
After a lull in gang activity in the region, law enforcement officials have tied three brutal killings involving teens or young adults in the Washington region during the past year to a resurgence of gang violence. Specifically, authorities note what appears to be an effort by the MS-13 gang to rebuild.
In September, a 17-year-old from Park View High School in Sterling was shot and killed as he walked to his bus stop days after the start of school; three young men — including a 17-year-old who was thought to have attended Park View at one time — have been charged in connection with shooting the student in the back.
Sean Conboy, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Department, said the District has not had a resurgence in gang activity in recent years. But some community advocates and school officials say they have noticed new signs of activity from Latino gangs amid an increase in immigration from Central America.
Last year, there was a surge in unaccompanied minors who crossed the border into the United States. Many of the young people were seeking refuge from widespread gang-related violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
But these young immigrants, apart from their families, are particularly vulnerable to gang recruitment in the United States, said Susana Martinez, who directs an intensive mentoring program for at-risk teens at the Latin American Youth Center.
She said effective gang prevention requires support from schools and other parts of the community, and an overly punitive approach could push students who are on the edge away from school and into the streets.
It can be difficult to distinguish gang members from victims who are trying to resist pressure, Martinez said.
“Gangs have evolved,” she said. “The stereotypical gang member covered in tattoos and wearing colors does not really exist any more. There’s this fear that it could be any kid, but by any kid, that means any Latino kid.”
Douglas W. Keen, police chief for the Manassas City Police Department and chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, said that overt signs of gang involvement are rarer than they used to be. Identification often comes through arrest, investigations and self-identification when people are processed into jail, he said.
Conboy said D.C. police use a “multi-pronged validation process” to identify gang members that “does not rely on mere association, wearing of colors or neighborhood affiliation.” He said school resource officers and gang intelligence officers also use prevention techniques and outreach programs, such as home visits and mediation, to work with youths who may be active in gangs or at risk of involvement.
D.C. Public Schools opened an “International Academy” in the fall of 2014 at Cardozo to serve high school students who are new to the country.
The model has been successful in other places for dealing with the specific needs of immigrant students, many of whom have experienced trauma and high levels of stress and have significant holes in their academic backgrounds.
Beer, who works in the international academy, said she is advocating for the 19-year-old student who was involved in the fight at Cardozo as he tries to navigate the criminal-justice system. She and the public defender assigned to his case said they have not seen evidence that he is a gang member. An assistant principal at Cardozo wrote a letter to the court on his behalf, noting that he has a 3.66 grade point average and no previous suspensions on record from his 2
School and police officials would not comment on the incident at Cardozo. But Michelle Lerner, a DCPS spokeswoman, said that disciplinary actions are based on infractions, not gang affiliation. And she noted that, overall, suspensions are down by 40 percent this year in the city’s high schools, compared with the same period last school year. At Cardozo, suspensions are down nearly 60 percent, she said.
“Staying out of gang activity is critical for students to stay on track for graduation and be successful at school,” Cardozo Principal Tanya Roane said. “We work with parents and students to ensure students understand the importance of staying out of gang activity.”
Cardozo administrators in recent years have asked certain students and their parents or guardians to sign a “gang/crew contract” that says the students must avoid acts that cause harm or destruction to the school, including graffiti, intentional acts or threats of violence to other people. The contract also warns them against “talking or affiliating” with gang members, which also is considered a “breach of contract” punishable by suspension, then expulsion.
Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, said the language in the contract raises “troubling” questions about due process.
“This kind of broad approach treats students from the outset like they are potential criminals,” she said, adding that it appears to ask them to give up their rights.
Lerner said that some schools have opted to use such “student pledges” as a tool to highlight the importance of staying away from gang activity, and she said the pledges are not used for disciplinary measures, although the contracts threaten discipline for merely associating with someone who might be in a gang.
A group of school leaders from charter and traditional schools in Northwest Washington met early this month to discuss gang prevention.
Arturo Martinez, a principal at the Next Step Public Charter School, an alternative school in Columbia Heights, said he was concerned about two potentially gang-related fights this fall involving his students.
“We have students that fight, but can we say they are from this gang or that?” he said. “It’s not easy to know.”
With other school leaders, including administrators from Roosevelt and Wilson high schools, he hopes to share information about how to prevent gang activity and identify individuals who might be involved with gangs, since students often transfer to different schools.
He said his primary objective is not to penalize students, but to keep his school safe and to help them.
“If they are coming to school to learn, that’s a good thing,” he said. “If you kick them out, they may go out and recruit kids out there.”