The gang aptitude test

By Michelle Chen May 25, 2009

Pop quiz: Do any of the following describe you?

I try to be nice to other people because I care about their feelings. I get very angry and “lose my temper” (yell or get mad). I do as I am told.

Depending on whether you do any of the above “always, often, half the time, rarely,” or “never,” you may be at a certain risk of gang activity. A lengthy multiple-choice test, recently published in the Wall Street Journal, has been designed to assess a young person’s odds of joining a gang later in life. The project, led by social psychologist Dr. Malcolm Klein, is aimed at tough neighborhoods in Los Angeles, a city that has long struggled to deal with gang-related violence. The questions, targeted to 10 to 15 year-olds, try to gauge different aspects of youth behavior, sometimes elliptically: In the past year, “Did anyone you were close to die or get seriously injured?” or “Did you ‘go out’ on a date with a boyfriend or girlfriend for the very first time?” Children are asked to rate their agreement with statements such as, “My parents or guardians know where I am when I am not at home or at school” or “Sometimes I like to do something a little dangerous just for the fun of it." The queries take a slightly more sinister tone later in the test: “It is okay to steal something from someone who is rich and can easily replace it”; “It is okay to beat people up if I do it to stand up for myself”; followed by questions about skipping school, carrying a weapon, and using drugs. Question 70 finally asks straight up if a child has “ever been a member of a gang.” (The interviewer may then check a box to indicate “suspect not honest.”) Researchers say the screening could help public safety authorities develop early interventions that are informed by social science. Policymakers see this as an “epidemiological” approach to controlling gangs, focused on stemming the root causes. Yet the research raises philosophical questions about drawing a line between constructive science and the further criminalization of youth. The WSJ reports, “In order to avoid stigmatizing children with the label of potential criminal, Dr. Klein says test takers aren’t told that the questions are intended to screen for future gang involvement.” (Presumably, the subjects are not avid Journal readers.) But even if it doesn’t lead to unnecessary stigma, the test could steer key funding decisions as officials ration resources and services for youth. Of the 958 children screened using Klein’s criteria, roughly one in three have been flagged for placement in gang-prevention programs. So far, the test seems geared toward developing research-based alternatives to traditional criminal justice tactics. But when addressing a social problem so fraught with racial, socioeconomic and cultural dynamics, could medicalizing cause and effect end up tracking distressed youth into self-fulfilling prophecies? One intriguing finding from Klein’s research stands out:

…gangs involve a far more narrow segment of the youth population — perhaps 15% in gang-ridden areas, and even lower elsewhere — than previously believed. The vast majority of adolescents even in neighborhoods where gangs are most prevalent will never join a gang, [Klein] says.

Maybe someone should study what those kids are doing. Image: Los Angeles graffiti. (AP)