It was last month when some of Nassau County's legislators got together to hold a public hearing on gang activity on Nassau County. Based on the testimony given by some of those in law enforcement as well as one former gang member, it was learned that no community is exempt from gang activity or violence.
It was also discussed that the way to decrease the rate of criminal acts among the youth in the county does not totally hinge on law enforcement. Many agree that preventative means must also be considered when trying to solve the problems of gang activity and violence in the county.
One theory as to why youths get involved with groups that foster criminal activity is because they long for a sense of belonging. As corrupt as a gang may be, it does provide a structured environment that could take the place of a family in the eyes of some children.
While many children are being raised by a single parent who works quite often and some have parents who work long hours to support a family in the high cost of living Mecca known as Long Island, it may be helpful to offer kids a setting where their lives can be influenced in a positive way.
From March to August of 1999, the Nassau County Youth Board conducted a survey, calling 27,285 phone numbers in Nassau County, which accounts for 4 percent of the population to determine the effectiveness of community-based after-school youth programs. According to the Nassau County Youth Board, the research found that involvement in youth programs helps avoid a wide variety of problems during adolescence, ranging from violence, depression, and drugs to shoplifting and possession of a weapon.
One youth group, Gateway Youth Outreach in Elmont, is an example of an organization that offers after school activities to kids. "If they don't have some kind of structured program available to them, some of these kids are obviously going to find other things to do and some of those other things are going to be mischievous," said Gateway Youth Outreach Director Pat Boyle.
There have been instances, according to Boyle when parents couldn't afford any after school care so kids as young as 7 and 8 years old were going home after school to empty houses. At that point, children either watch television or play video games or whatever other activity they can find. "After a while I would imagine that it gets boring for a kid so they just go out and look for something else to do in the community. They look for other friends that are hanging out. Even in their own houses, we've heard of instances where kids would find a bottle of liquor and drink a little bit. It's not that the kids were bad it's just that they didn't have anything else to do," Boyle said.
It is a popular theory among those who utilize youth groups as well as extracurricular activities in schools, that involvement in positive activities boosts a child's self-esteem. The Nassau County Youth Board Survey showed that children who use community youth services often have far higher rates of self-esteem, conflict resolution, leadership and planning skills and greater awareness of other races than those who do not.
Those children who are left home alone after school or who have a fear of violence in their community are said to be at risk of getting involved in mischievous activity.
"A side of the research that we did does explore how kids who are involved in after school programming seems to have far lower rates of involvement in high-risk behaviors. There seems to be a preventive connection for those kids particularly who are left home alone after school and those kids who have a fair amount of fear of violence in their community. If they are not involved in after school programming, kids have greater rates of fighting, substance abuse and possession of a weapon that are three to four times higher than other kids who don't have a lot of fear of violence or who aren't left home alone," said Randy Simmons, coordinator of research for the Nassau County Youth Board. "If the same kids are involved in after school programming frequently, their rates of these activities are almost as if they didn't have those environmental risks."
Last month's legislative hearing identified Elmont as having 4 percent of last year's gang-related incidence in Nassau County. Since some may have fear of violence in the community, that fear puts some kids at risk when it comes to getting involved in mischievous behavior. Therefore, the need for youth groups is all the more important.
Besides coming for the after school program, Gateway Youth Outreach also provides after school homework assistant programs and allows parents and their families to come here for free counseling. "Kids are going to still be hanging out with other kids, but we're giving them the opportunity to make choices that are going to be more positive," said Boyle.
Extracurricular activities aren't just limited to what youth groups can provide. The Sewanhaka Central High School District, which is comprised of Sewanhaka High School, Floral Park Memorial High School, Elmont Memorial High School, New Hyde Park Memorial High School and H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, provides a multitude of clubs and sports teams. Superintendent of Schools Dr. George Goldstein has seen a tremendous benefit from students participating in extracurricular activities in his years at the district. "Extracurricular activities make a well-rounded, educated and total child," he said. "Children have to have a reason for going to school and it has to be fun also."
According to Dr. Goldstein, extracurricular activities teach a child about sportsmanship, how to be better citizens and how to act appropriately toward everyone they encounter. "Nothing beats a child participating in sports or cheerleading or a debate club or a literary magazine. Children have to learn not only about subject matter, but also about life. One of the benefits of extracurricular activities is that a child learns values - honesty, integrity - and how to be more self-sufficient," he said. "Honor, dignity and self-esteem comes about by learning early in life the importance of values."
In addition, participating in extracurricular activities, whether they are clubs or sports teams, teaches children how to interact with each other, said Dr. Goldstein.
The Sewanhaka Central High School District Superintendent was proud to report that approximately 75 to 80 percent a district-wide student population of 8,100 are involved in one or more activities. Each school has about 35 teams and over 50 activities, he said. "We want every child to participate in something. We don't want a child to come to school and go home. It's not learning about learning six classes. It's learning about how to be the best [you can be] and enjoying the best of what life can give you."
"You show me a child who is an athlete or who is heavily involved in student government, student affairs and extracurricular activities and I will show you that 90 percent of them are not involved in being disciplined, drugs, drinking or any other activity," Dr. Goldstein said.