For some youth in the United States, back-to-school preparations go beyond buying cool backpacks and clothing. This month, a few are setting their sites on how not to be a part of the 7 percent of teens who now belong to gangs.
If more kids make such moves, it could drastically curb urban violence. According to the National Gang Center, numerous nationwide studies show that gang-affiliated juveniles commit more serious crimes than their non-gang peers.
Don't miss "Gang Wars: Oakland" Sep. 2 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the Discovery Channel.
"Gangs are the effect of ineffective communities. Somebody dropped the ball, whether it was the family, the church, the schools" former gang member Juan Pacheco told Discovery News on a recent night at Wheaton County Library in Maryland.
There, he and Kevin Sanchez -- both local leaders in a nationwide gang alternative movement known as Barrios Unidos -- stood in the center of a group of 20 young people, engaged in a gang ritual of sorts, but not one that involved turf wars or a beating during initiation.
Sanchez placed on the floor four bandanas in colors usually associated with rival gangs, and lit a stick of sage to "cleanse" the air.
"It doesn't matter what color it is," explained Pacheco, "what matters is the intent you put on that color."
Sanchez then took a feather-tasseled staff and asked each youth to hold it while recounting a painful life experience. One after the other, the youth talked of losing loved ones to homicide or drugs, struggling with alcoholism, or being raped and abused. Some mistakenly thought gangs would protect them from these experiences.
Founded in 1977 during California's Chicano rights movement, Barrios Unidos leaders find that sage-burning ceremonies, Native American sweat lodges, and even art silk-screening workshops are all activities that help disenfranchised youth feel a stronger sense of cultural and ancestral belonging in the United States.
They're the "extra little motivation that the young people may need to transform," explained Sanchez.
From there, B.U. leaders can help link at-risk and gang youth up with counselors who deal specifically with substance abuse and violence.
The concept is gaining momentum. Congress is considering the Youth PROMISE Act, a bill that designates funding for a wide range of social services in conjunction with traditional police intervention. Supporters argue this would prevent crime, curbing costs of hospitalization and incarceration.
While there are no conclusive studies on this argument, some evidence is emerging. In 2008, University of California Los Angeles Anthropologist Jorja Leap began a five-year study of the popular local program Homeboys Industries.
For two decades, Homeboys Industries' founder, Father Greg Boyle, has been offering Angelino gang members counseling, rehabilitation, tattoo removal, and even jobs through a bakery and silk screening business. During the first two years of the study, Leap found that only 30 percent of participants returned to a life of crime.
Leap says most gang members come to that program through a ritual: gang-affiliated tattoo removal. Homeboys Industries offers this service free of charge, and while just four percent of its funding is public, Los Angeles County authorities routinely put gang members in contact with the program.
"Removing the tattoo is incredibly symbolic as well as pragmatic," Leap said, explaining that it gives a feeling of self-determination, more freedom of movement, and better access to a good job. "It's a reverse baptism."
The ritual is just the beginning, she warned. At-risk youth need support centers that are open to them daily. Even Homeboys Industries has struggled with that lately. It had to lay off 75 percent of its 400 employees in May.