UTC students contribute to the Comprehensive Gang Assessment

By Megan Ferguson, Chattanooga, TN–

Stepping up: Outreach Coordinator of the Gang Task Force Fred Houser stands with members of the Eta Phi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. Fraternity members were asked to perform a step show at the “Be The Change” event which took place at Miller Plaza.

UTC students contributed a substantial amount of data to the Chattanooga Comprehensive Gang Assessment, one of the most comprehensive in the nation, through the Center for Applied Social Research, UTC officials said.

The Assessment is the first step of a five-part community process that involves law enforcement, community institutions—including schools—and public agencies.

According to the report, Kim Porter of the National Gang Task Force found the Chattanooga Assessment as the most comprehensive and inclusive one in the nation, and will be a model for other cities.

Director of the Center for Applied Social Research Barbara Medley said the Center for Applied Social Research contributed the school component to the assessment.

“The domain that the Center for Applied Social Research here at UTC took on was the domain of students and schools and so we call this the school component,” Medley said. “Now the school component—because it involves so much—really is nearly half of the assessment, and the Center for Applied Social Research hired a number of students.”

When the program began in March, a number of UTC students were hired. Several undergraduates and several graduates contributed a tremendous amount of work, Medley said.

Four UTC graduates and 10 UTC undergraduate students worked on the project.

“I’d like to applaud to the students because this was not only a training opportunity for them in research, but they actually made a huge contribution to getting this study carried out and completed,” Medley said. “I really want to give our students credit for the hard, excellent work they did.”

 The Center also had the assistance of one Ph.D. student from Howard University, and one student graduate of Wake Forest University, according to the Gang Assessment project report.

Senior Research Associate for the Comprehensive Gang Assessment Marclyn Porter agrees UTC students played a huge role in the school component.

“We had a great team of undergraduate and graduate students that worked with us all summer, and if it wasn’t for their commitment and professionalism, we would not have been able to meet the requirements for the deadline,” Porter said.

Center for Applied Social Research conducted two surveys, seven focus groups with school employees and parents, and compiled existing secondary data from the school system (incident and disciplinary data) for the school component.

The student survey was a paper and pencil survey of a sample of 6,721 students from 13 middle and high schools. A total of 5,057 students completed the surveys. That’s a 75.24 percent response rate.

The Hamilton County schools employee survey was an online survey of the 4,000 employees, of which 819 participated (20 percent response rate), according to the Gang Assessment project report.

The surveys ask in depth questions about the presence of gangs in schools, identifying gangs, and whether or not students in particular are affiliated with gangs, Medley said.

“We gained a tremendous amount of qualitative and quantitative information from these two surveys,” Medley said.

In addition to that, focus groups were held with both Hamilton county school employees and parents. Students analyzed two years of discipline and behavior incident data that the school system maintains, Medley said.

“All of those pieces were brought together to give us a picture of what is going on in the schools with connection to gangs,” Medley said.

Medley said the community feedback was also important for qualitative data.

“People shared their ideas, their fears, and their concerns of the problem in very rich detail,” Medley said. “The study gives us a huge amount of information about how to look at the gang problem in Chattanooga in particular.”

Outreach Coordinator of the Gang Task Force and The Future Is Ours Fred Houser said the assessment would not have been possible without Mayor Ron Littlefield’s proposing and push for the 75,000 dollars to pay for the cost of the assessment and the support he received from the city council to proceed and use those funds.

The assessment is a five-part community study of the gang problem in Chattanooga, and is based on the national model recommended by the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which in turn is based on the highly effective Chicago Gang Reduction program, according to the Gang Assessment project report.

The assessment itself includes five components – community demographic data, law enforcement data, student and school data, community perceptions data, and community resources data, according to the project report.

Houser said his role after receiving support for the Gang Task Force was to identify for the Applied Center for Social Research a network of anything related to criminal activity, Houser said.

Houser is preparing a proposed next step schedule to Boyd Patterson, coordinator of the gang task force, and their staff. He has recommendations, general steps that are being considered, but not yet decided courses of action.

“I am suggesting at least one or a series of public hearings where we would give extended courtesy to citizens of this community to hear what the findings are in the final document,” Houser said. “After all, while this document contains some worthwhile data on crime and crime activities, the feature of the comprehensive gang assessment is the voice of the people.”

Houser said it is really important that the community understands the voices of the people have been recorded and heard in the assessment.

The focal point of the planning model will be on intervention. A strong intervention piece will be the centerpiece of everything that the task force does, Houser said.

Houser said according to the findings, the interventions will start where kids spend most of their time, at the schools.

According to the student and school data of the Comprehensive Gang Assessment, teachers and staff indicated gang activity is present in their schools, although some schools were aware of having a greater problem than others.

Some schools have been proactive on the gang issue, but for many others little training on how to identify and deal with gangs has taken place. To date, no system-wide initiative to address gang issues has been developed.

In addition to that, the data also revealed that gang involvement could begin as early as elementary school.

Of interest, 20.6 percent of employee respondents who worked in elementary schools reported a gang presence in their schools, and 18.1 percent knew of self-identified gang members in their schools. These numbers increased for employees in middle and high schools.

Porter said the presence of UTC organizations at the Be The Change event downtown earlier this weekend could help be part of the solution.

“I think there is a tremendous opportunity for our community, both Chattanooga as a whole and the University community, to really get engaged and be part of the solution,” Porter said.

The Be The Change event was held to help spread awareness of gang activity in the community and to get support from the community for the future of the youth in Chattanooga.

Donnie Swift, a Memphis senior, said his organization, Scholarly Men in Action, is centered on helping the Chattanooga community. He was also excited to be at the Be The Change event.

“We do anything in our power to get out there and represent and help out the community,” Swift said. “For everybody to come together and converse and get to know each other to help out the community is a beneficial thing, not just for me, but everyone in the Chattanooga community.”

Memphis senior Jordan Taylor, president of Eta Phi Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity incorporated, wants to help kids aspire to go to college.

“We encourage high school students to go to college so they can be the best they can be,” Taylor said. “A lot of kids today are from families who haven’t gone to college. For some kids, they will be the first of their family to go to college. That’s a really big accomplishment and we want to encourage that.”

Taylor, as well as other members of the fraternity, were asked to do a step show for the Be The Change event.

Porter said Fred Houser and Boyd Patterson are working to develop community connections.

“They’ve created a youth advisory board of high school aged students and I am sure they would be very open to a college level advisory board because we, in this assessment, very clearly outlined that UTC has tremendous resources,” Porter said. “There is lots of room for UTC to be more involved, not just from the faculty and staff side, but most definitely the student side.”