Special Reports

Why do kids join gangs? Ask the students

For protection.

For a more reliable source of illegal drugs.

For the family they never had or to follow in the footsteps of relatives.

Those are reasons Kansas City youths join gangs, according to their peers and police.

Gang members gain a favorable reputation, explained a Northeast High School student who, like other students, didn’t want her name published.

"It’s like being popular, like they’re the best one," said the girl.

Her friend noted that gang members "know how to fight better," and fighting is an important part of gang culture.

Fights break out at Central High School about twice a week, said Officer Jennifer Jacobs-Weyrauch, a school resource officer at the building until November. Many brawls end with insults such as "(your gang) ain’t nothing!" she said.

A Central sophomore said he believes about 35 students at his 1,000-student school are hard-core gang members, although police say that’s extremely conservative. Students belong to one of about five different gangs, the sophomore said.

Youths join to secure "backup" protection and a dependable drug supply, he said.

"I talked to a kid who said he thought his supply was going to run out and he got tired of that."

Gangsters don’t typically bother non-ganged-up kids, he said.

"But if you get initiated and want to get out, that’s when you have problems," he said, because gang members worry that anyone leaving "is gonna say something to the police."

Some gangsters commit robberies for their initiations, he said.

The Northeast girls said "jumpings" -- where gang members beat initiates -- are familiar initiations. That and stealing.

Gang affiliations begin to develop in eighth grade, one of the Northeast students said.

"In lunch, if you sit with eastsiders, then you sit with southsiders, they’ll ask who you are with," she said. "Even if you’re not in a gang, you still have to pick sides."

Both of the Northeast students said they have many family members -- uncles, brothers and cousins -- in gangs. Some students join to follow relatives’ footsteps. Girls usually run with the gang their boyfriends are in, they said.

Many urban youths have similar backgrounds, said Brandon Robinson, 22, who grew up in a housing project.

"You got family members on crack and you ain’t eating right. Everybody’s hungry."

Robinson said youths look out for each other, help feed each other and stick up for each other.

"That’s when you start loving your street," he said.