The purpose of this critical ethnographic study was to examine the lived experiences of formerly or currently incarcerated, Hispanic males who attended elementary school in Central Coast County (pseudonym), and affiliated, or previously affiliated with, one of the two major Mexican gangs in the State of California. This study sought to investigate what influence or impact, if any, a student's educational experience prior to entering middle school may have on a desire to become involved with the gang culture. The unusually high teenage homicide rate occurring in a non-urban setting has garnered national attention. Teachers, school administrators, a probation officer, counselors, a defense attorney, and a retired superior court judge were interviewed. Lived experiences of Hispanic gang members in Southern California, recorded in two recent research projects, were analyzed. The primary research question was: What role, if any, does school disengagement have on a student’s entrance into the School to Prison Pipeline? A cross-sectional approach was used for the semi-structured interviews, field observations, and document analysis. The data revealed five themes, Environment, Interventions, Belonging, Caring Adults and Self Worth. The themes surfaced from the interviews, document analysis, and observations, which were guided by the overarching research question.

Three conclusions resulted from the analysis and interpretation of findings from the study. Firstly, environmental factors play an extremely significant role in a student’s life trajectory as this uncontrollable element cannot be controlled by the child. Secondly, cultural awareness for educators is deficient in the area of understanding street socialized youth. Lastly, increased effectuality by educational staff for the early recognition and implementation of effective interventions is crucial in early childhood. This study highlights the need for educators to receive increased training to expand their understanding of students who are socialized in low socioeconomic environments where gangs and violence are present. Additionally, improved school wide efficacy is required for the timely identification of students needing specific interventions, along with continuous systems of support. Through these measures, school connectedness will likely increase and create a barrier that should be embraced by all: one that stifles and impedes the entrance into the criminal justice system.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Hispanic American students -- California -- Case studies; Prison-industrial complex -- California; Multicultural education -- California; Teachers -- Training of -- California

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Martine Jugo