For nearly a decade, O’Neill assistant professor Dena Carson has dedicated her research career to examining youth gangs. Her commitment to the field was recently recognized by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Section of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.
Carson received the group’s Tory J. Caeti Memorial Award, honoring the next generation of juvenile justice and delinquency scholars who contribute to a better understanding of issues in their field.
“Dr. Carson is well-rounded in her contributions to research, scholarship, and service,” says Jen Peck, Ph.D., award committee member and assistant criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida. “Her research agenda is innovative, clear, consistent, substantive, programmatic, policy-related, and fits squarely within juvenile justice and related issues.”
Carson explains that her work contributes to a body of research that explores the inner workings of youth gangs as well as their impact on non-gang youth—particularly in the school context.
“Some people have this perception that youth gangs are constantly violent,” Carson says. “We think they’re responsible for poor school climate and school violence, but we don’t have a sense of what gang members are actually doing in school.”
Contrary to those perceptions, Carson says youth gang activity is not “all criminal all the time.” In fact, she says most of what they do is not harmful at all. Like many kids’ their age, they simply like hanging out or playing sports together.
Yet those findings aren’t the ones that particularly surprised Carson. It was the reaction other students have to gang members—especially in school—that caught her attention.
“I think the most surprising part of my work is the finding that the kids who are interacting with gangs in their schools aren’t as affected as we would think,” she says. “They’re not living their lives every day in fear of gang members.”
Carson says that just as students may not engage with other youth outside their circle, they naturally also separate themselves from gang members.
But when it comes to members separating from their own gang, Carson’s research finds it’s usually because they simply become disillusioned with gang life.
“The reasons why they leave their gang are not that different than the reason kids leave any peer group,” she says. “While a smaller percentage leave due to violence, most simply rethink their decision, find out it’s not what they thought, or just don’t get along with the others in the group.”
According to Carson, findings from her work can help shape future policy decisions and improve outcomes for youth gang members.
“If we target and exclude kids in school because we perceive them to be in a gang, all we’re doing is isolating that student and sending him or her deeper into the gang,” she explains. “We know that strong bonds to school as well as exposure to pro-social peers and opportunities can help youth leave a gang. It’s better to include rather than exclude.”
It’s those types of approaches Carson says are the future of her field.
“While there are a number of negative consequences resulting from gang membership, the experience can also be a turning point for good,” she says. “What we don’t know yet is what gang members look like 10–20 years past membership. Young people can see this experience, learn from it, and move on.”