When people think about gang activity, they usually think of teenagers hanging around street corners, vandalizing businesses and committing petty crimes on the street.
But according to two employees of the Davis School District, school is an oft-overlooked hotbed of gang activity."Quite honestly, I think the gang members find school a good place to do business," said Nadine Ludlow, a teaching specialist who, along with Daniel Young, works full time with Davis dropouts to try to get them to attend school again.
The names are pseudonyms; Ludlow and Young asked that their real names not be used. "We've been working with some of these kids a long time, and we don't want to (decrease) their confidence in us," Young said.
Last October Ludlow and Young started working with 900 students who were not enrolled in school. Some of those just moved away without telling school administrators, but many others dropped out for reasons including family conflicts, behavioral problems, lack of interest or concern for their own safety.
The two employees have succeeded in getting 48 of the 88 students with whom they have worked closely back in school, either in a mainstream school or an alternative program such as the district's alternative high school. Most of the drop-outs are 10th- or 11th-graders.
"This is the biggest thing: They just want someone who cares," Young said. "The school counselors can't do that - they're too overburdened."
Ludlow said most dropouts' family lives are less than ideal - especially regarding their fathers. She and Young surveyed many of the 88 students and found only 16 percent of them considered their fathers to have had the most influence on their lives. Sixty-one percent said their mothers had the most influence.
Ludlow and Young have also discovered that not as many gang members are dropping out as some administrators expected. To the contrary, many students drop out because they feel threatened by gangs.
Forty-five percent of those surveyed said they didn't always feel safe at school, and 43 percent of those cited gangs as the reason they didn't feel safe.
"Most gang experiences are in school," said David Turner, executive director of the Davis County Safe Home, Safe School, Safe Community executive committee. "That's their turf. We thought the gang kids would be the ones getting out of school, and in reality the gang kids are staying in."
A significant number of the dropouts, however, did have ties to gangs. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed said they were involved with a gang or had friends who were. Predictably, many of the dropouts had drug abuse problems, with cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana being the drugs of choice.
Ludlow and Young take a non-confrontational approach to working with the non-enrolled students. Most of them are technically breaking the law, which prohibits dropping out of school before age 16, but the two workers aren't truancy officers, they don't wear uniforms and they take pains to put the youths at ease.
"When we make the initial call (we say), `This is (Nadine), this is (Dan), we work for the district - you're not in trouble,' " Ludlow said.
They started with a pool of 900 non-enrolled students, but an additional 10 students disappear from the district's classes every week, on average.
"Most of the time it's a big struggle," Young said. "They're interesting kids," Ludlow said. "The job's never boring - I'll say that much."