For nearly a decade, the province’s anti-gang agency has been warning Lower Mainland high school students about the dangers of wading into the criminal underworld.
For the first time, academics are conducting a massive study on whether the messaging of the End Gang Life campaign has any effect, and Tri-Cities students will be the subjects of that study.
“We don’t want to waste time with things that don’t work,” said Dr. Jennifer Wong of Simon Fraser University’s criminology department.
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“We want to make sure that they’re doing something that’s effective, that it’s actually making a difference and changing attitudes.”
The study will be the largest of its kind for any school-based education campaign around gang awareness, said Staff Sgt. Lindsey Houghton of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSU-BC), the province’s integrated anti-gang task force.
An estimated 2,000 Grade 9 and 10 students from Centennial Secondary, Terry Fox Secondary, Heritage Woods Secondary, Pinetree Secondary, Port Moody Secondary and École Riverside Secondary schools are set to take part in the evaluation over a six-month period.
Houghton started developing the End Gang Life campaign in 2013. It has grown into the education and intervention arm of the CFSU-BC, and has secured permanent funding from the province.
He said it’s the only program of its kind in Canada, but they have little concept of how effective it is.
“Over the years we’ve sent out thousands of booklets; we’ve probably given presentations to over 60,000 students; tens of thousands have undoubtedly seen our products,” Houghton said.
“We’ll never truly know the entire scope of the impact … unless we try to measure it.”
An evaluation of the program was meant to start in 2020 but was put on hold indefinitely as the pandemic swept across the province and in-school learning shut down.
Why School District 43?
The Tri-Cities became the chosen location due to its diverse population base, both ethnically and socio-economically, according to Houghton.
He added that SD43 administrators were “first to put up their hands.”
Wong said she wanted a single school district where the students would have a reasonably similar environment.
While poverty is traditionally a key factor driving gang involvement in other areas of the world, the Lower Mainland’s gang landscape is unique, Wong said.
Houghton described the Lower Mainland as having a “middle class gang issue.”
“We talk with some of our colleagues and academics from other areas of North America and they scratch their heads,” Houghton said.
“I’ve had so many conversations with American police officers over the years, who are completely baffled at why our kids are getting involved in this.”
For decades, the region’s gang culture has not been neighbourhood-based like Chicago, Los Angeles, or even Toronto to a lesser extent, Houghton said.
Instead, Drug trafficking is transient, operated through ‘Dial-A-Dope’ rings that deliver drugs across a wide area by vehicle.
These delivery services are primarily how youth become involved in gangs, according to Houghton, adding they don’t realize the connection until they are set up, fall into debt, and have to find a way to repay it.
He said the dispersed nature of the trafficking in the Lower Mainland makes it hard to know where to target educational programs, and they’ve admittedly had a “shotgun approach.”
“No family or school is immune to this,” Houghton said. “Drug dealing is very under the radar. Many people think the Tri-Cities are a little bit sleepier, and we’re not impacted by some of the bigger city issues, but we are.”
CFSU-BS does not have statistics on how many youth are involved in gangs, or where recruitment is most prevalent, Houghton said, but anecdotally there is a general feeling it’s on the rise.
“One of the questions that I think we and others should ask is why.”
The majority of research on messaging campaigns has been conducted in the field of health, according to Wong, such as studies on the effectiveness of anti-smoking advertisements.
She said there is plenty of literature on gangs, but there are not many studies that evaluate the effectiveness of broader media campaigns as a deterrent.
Over the years, CFSU-BC has developed different methods for delivering the message to the region’s youth such as documentaries, video series, and booklets.
Students willing to participate will be chosen by a draw and given a pre-test survey, shown one form of messaging, and then take a post-test survey.
The study aims to gauge how impactful each strategy is, if it changes attitudes or behaviours, and whether students retain information.
“Does it make a difference to have a former gang-member, someone who was involved himself, come talk to high school kids about his experiences?” Wong said. “More than an ununiformed officer giving them information on gangs?”
Wong described the data collection as “intense,” and has approximately 40 research assistants involved in the process.
A series of recommendations will be given to CFSU-BC at the conclusion of the study, and the data will eventually be published in academic journals.