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Responses to the Problem of School Vandalism and Break-Ins

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

1. Recognizing the person-environment interaction. School vandalism and break-ins are the combined results of the offenders' characteristics and those of the physical and social environment in which the behavior occurs. This means that responses must focus on both the person and the environment. Focusing on one but not on the other will prove ineffective.†

† In a project that applied situational crime prevention to school vandalism in Manchester, England, the task force narrowly defined school vandalism as a "building security problem," which led to their selecting target-hardening measures only, to the detriment of the initiative's effectiveness (Barker and Bridgeman 1994). [Full text]

Physical measures to improve building security have great appeal. Their use is already widespread in many places, is easy to understand, and usually involves a one-time outlay of funds. In contrast, measures focused on offenders, new administrative practices or policies, and community involvement appear to be more complex and difficult to implement. It may be difficult to gain group consensus on more-complex responses; however, the initiative's overall balance depends on it.33

The large number of possible responses can be overwhelming. For this reason, they are categorized into four main sections: those that impact the physical environment, those that impact the offender, those that focus on school administrative practices, and those that enlist the community's help. The overall initiative should include a balance of responses in each category, and should use the most potent combinations.† Finally, responses should be implemented with great sensitivity to the goal of creating schools that are inviting public institutions. The cumulative effect of multiple responses can make schools appear fortress-like.

† The Southampton (England) Safer Schools project employed a diverse range of responses to combat problems with vandalism and burglary on school property. The responses included improvements to the schools' design and layout, student- and staff-focused awareness activities, and opportunities for community engagement. Over an 18-month period, there was a 90 percent reduction in reported burglary and damage, and a 75 percent reduction in damage- repair expenditures (Hampshire Constabulary 2004).

2. Establishing a task force. While police clearly have a role in preventing and responding to school vandalism and break-ins, these problems are shared by school administrators and community residents who, as taxpayers, indirectly pay for repairs and replacements. Task forces should include broad representation from all groups who can help to define the problem, particularly students, teachers, custodians, and school security officers, and those who will be instrumental in crafting and implementing responses, including local and district-level school administrators, counselors, architects, security consultants, crime prevention officers, firefighters, maintenance contractors, and community representatives.† It is vital that students be involved in the problem-solving effort, including school leaders and more-marginalized students.†† A coordinator is often needed to organize the various stakeholders efforts, and to ensure that all of the selected responses are implemented according to design.††† 

† The National Crime Prevention Council's School Safety and Security Toolkit includes detailed information on forming an action team, identifying problems, and developing action plans. The toolkit also includes sample surveys for parents, administrators, and students, as well as a sample school-safety assessment.

†† The Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Police Department implemented a school safety program in which students were taught problem-solving skills and applied them to a range of school safety issues. Teachers served as facilitators, and the school resource officer served as an information source, offering expertise in dealing with crime and disorder. While none of the projects dealt with vandalism specifically, one could apply the process to it (Kenney and Watson 1999).

††† Though well-planned, an initiative to combat school vandalism in Manchester, England, suffered from the absence of someone to coordinate the overall implementation. Only 15 of 30 targeted responses were implemented, which severely compromised the initiative's effectiveness (Barker and Bridgeman 1994). [Full text]

3. Using the media wisely. News stories, advertising, slogans, and posters are all effective ways to transmit information to the community about the impact of school vandalism and break-ins. Using student-based information sources, such as school newspapers, student councils, athletic events, and parent newsletters, can also help to ensure that the messages reach the intended audiences.34 However, there is a risk that media attention might promote the concept of achieving notoriety through high-profile crimes against school property.35 Thus, journalists should avoid sensationalizing the events, and focus instead on the resources being squandered and the loss experienced by students, as well as the consequences faced by offenders.
4. Setting priorities. It is impossible to address every vulnerability at a school. Examining the relationship between the monetary and social costs of specific instances of vandalism, burglary, or arson can be useful in setting strategic priorities among your responses. In general, protecting high-value items, administrative areas, computer and technology labs, computer system hubs, clinics, libraries, and band rooms will mitigate the risk of events with high financial and social costs.36
5. Operating at the district level. Public schools are administered at a district level, and district administrators may hesitate to grant individual schools the autonomy to implement the suggested responses on their own. Instead, districts may choose to resolve problems on a large scale, while individual schools fine-tune responses to address their particular conditions. A districtwide approach may be more efficient than individual schools' efforts to address the problem.

Specific Responses to School Vandalism and Break-Ins

Changes to the Physical Environment

6. Controlling access to deter unauthorized entry. Gates, deadbolt locks on doors and windows, door and window shutters, and doors that open only from the inside are effective means of securing school buildings. Access can also be deterred by limiting the number of entry points in school buildings, and by planting thorny bushes and un-climbable trees near entry points. Movable gates can be used indoors to secure sections of the building, while also permitting community use of facilities after hours.† Such measures can also delay intruders' efforts to get away. The potential effectiveness of this response decreases with inconsistent or improper use of the hardware. Some jurisdictions assign a teacher or other staff member to check all locks and gates at the end of each day.37
Barriers such as interior gates can help keep unauthorized persons out of areas vulnerable to theft or vandalism after hours.

Barriers such as interior gates can help keep unauthorized persons out of areas vulnerable to theft or vandalism after hours. Credit: David Corbett

There are numerous mechanical and electronic fixtures to deter unauthorized entry. See Schneider, Walker, and Sprague (2000) for a description of the full array of options.

Intruder alarms, motion sensors, heat sensors, and glass-break sensors are useful for quickly detecting unauthorized entry. Because putting alarms and sensors throughout the school is likely to be cost-prohibitive, focusing on passageways to different parts of the building, and on areas where valuable equipment and records are stored, is most effective. Alarm signals should be sent to police, on-campus security posts, and the school principal.38 However, alarm systems are prone to high rates of false alarms, which not only cost the school if a fine is imposed, but also waste police resources. Faulty or inappropriately selected equipment, poor installation, and user error are the main causes of false alarms.39

Signs clearly stating school procedure and policy can increase awareness of rules while removing ambiguity and ignorance as excuses for improper behavior.

Signs clearly stating school procedure and policy can increase awareness of rules while removing ambiguity and ignorance as excuses for improper behavior. Credit: David Corbett

7. Posting warning signs. Access-control signs are an important part of "rule setting" in that they establish the types of activities prohibited both during and after school, and notify potential intruders that they are under surveillance. School territory and permitted uses can also be established through the strategic use of gardens, designated picnic areas, and student artwork.40 These features indicate that the school buildings and grounds are both cared for and controlled. 
8. Storing valuables in secure areas. Storing high-value audio-visual equipment and computers in rooms equipped with high-quality locks, in the inner section of the building, makes them harder to access. Further, using carts to move expensive equipment to a central storage room can reduce the number of rooms that need to be secured. Bolting computers to lab and office desks makes their removal more difficult and time-consuming. Equipping storage areas with smoke detectors linked to the fire department ensures a quick response in case of fire. Removing signs indicating the location of expensive equipment (e.g., A-V Storage Room or Computer Lab) is also advisable.41
Consolidating valuable equipment in a secure area when not in use is an effective method of preventing theft.

Consolidating valuable equipment in a secure area when not in use is an effective method of preventing theft. Credit: David Corbett

9. Reducing the availability of combustibles. Most arson fires are started with materials found on-site.42 For this reason, indoor and outdoor trash cans should be emptied regularly, and any flammable chemicals in science labs and maintenance storage areas should always be properly secured.
10. Inscribing valuables with identifying marks. It is harder to sell stolen goods that have permanent identifying marks on them. Engraving, stenciling, or using permanent marker to imprint the school's name, logo, or seal on all computers, televisions, VCRs, DVD players, cameras, etc., can deter intruders who intend to sell the equipment.†

† Your police department may have an Operation ID program for inscribing equipment. The program is usually free, the inscription is visible but not unattractive, and the police keep records of the identification numbers.

11. Adjusting indoor or outdoor lighting. There is no consensus on whether well-lit school campuses and building interiors or "dark" campuses are superior in terms of crime prevention. Obviously, lighting adjustments alone are not effective deterrents, but in combination with other responses, both approaches have shown positive results. Well-lit campuses and buildings make suspicious activity more visible to observers, and also may offer some protection to custodial staff and others who may legitimately be on campus after dark.43 On the other hand, a "lights out" policy makes it more difficult for potential intruders to manipulate locks and hinges at entry points, and if intruders do enter the building, observers can easily spot any lights that should not be on. Not only have some schools benefited from decreased vandalism-related costs, but they have also realized significant energy savings.44, †

† The International Dark-Sky Association (1997) offers suggestions for defining "lights out" policies and guidelines for implementing the practice. The San Diego school system saw a 33 percent reduction in property crime over a two-year period and saved more than $1 million in electricity costs after establishing such a policy (Patterson 1996).

12. Obstructing vandals through physical barriers. Target-hardening measures such as using stronger finishes and materials, or placing objects out of reach or in an enclosure, make it harder to damage property.45 These can also include toughened glass or glass substitutes, fire- retardant paint, graffiti-repellent paint or coatings, concrete or steel outdoor furniture, tamperproof hardware out of reach from the ground, and door hinges with nonremovable pins.†† Computer labs and classes that use expensive equipment may be located on the second floor to impede access and removal.46
Prompt removal of graffiti denies graffiti artists the satisfaction of seeing their handiwork and, in the case of gang-related graffiti, the likelihood of retaliatory tagging.

Prompt removal of graffiti denies graffiti artists the satisfaction of seeing their handiwork and, in the case of gang-related graffiti, the likelihood of retaliatory tagging. Credit: David Corbett

†† See Goldstein (1996) and Schneider, Walker, and Sprague (2000) for more detailed information on using target-hardening devices at schools.
13. Repairing damage quickly and improving the appearance of school grounds. Clean, well-maintained buildings free of debris or garbage and with attractively landscaped grounds are less at risk for vandalism and break-ins.47 Consistent maintenance may serve as an "occupation proxy," giving the appearance that the school is under steady surveillance by those concerned about keeping it safe.48 Thus, it follows that any damage incurred, either through vandalism or normal wear and tear, should be repaired quickly.†††

††† Zeisel (1976) recommends involving students in the care of school buildings and grounds, and engaging them in ongoing, active projects. Further, motivating marginalized students, in addition to school leaders, can help to deter all students from future vandalism.

14. Removing ground-floor glass windows and other vandalism targets. Vandalism to building exteriors can be thwarted by removing hardware fixtures and altering surfaces that are easily vandalized. Smooth, uniform surfaces are attractive graffiti targets, but can be protected by applying textured or patterned surfaces.49

Offender-Focused Responses

15. Increasing the frequency of security-staff patrols. Increasing the frequency with which security staff patrol school grounds and buildings increases the likelihood that a potential intruder will be seen. While it can be useful for police to make sporadic checks of school grounds while on their normal patrol, continually patrolling school property is an inefficient use of police resources. Instead, police should conduct risk assessments and respond to and investigate vandalism incidents.50
Conspicuously placed surveillance cameras can be a useful deterrent by increasing the risk of identification and prosecution.

Conspicuously placed surveillance cameras can be a useful deterrent by increasing the risk of identification and prosecution. Credit: David Corbett

16. Using closed-circuit television. The strategic placement of closed-circuit television (CCTV) may deter potential offenders. When vandalism and break-ins occur, CCTV footage can be used to identify the perpetrators.† Though the initial financial outlay may be significant, over the long term, CCTV may be less expensive than funding a full-time security patrol.

† If this response is selected, many strategic decisions must be made regarding the system and component specifications, camera placement, wiring, etc. For a thorough discussion of these issues.

17. Improving opportunities for natural surveillance. The likelihood that school staff, residents, and pedestrians going about their daily activities will spot an intruder depends on the visibility of the school grounds from nearby houses, sidewalks, and streets.†† Clear sight lines in key locations, such as entrances, parking lots, hallways, and playgrounds, maximize the ability of residents and passersby to observe activity in vulnerable areas.††† Opportunities for natural surveillance are enhanced when staff offices are located throughout the school building, and staff should be vigilant as they move around the school.51

†† Poyner (1984) notes that schools are sometimes located in quiet areas some distance from busy commercial areas or traffic, for safety and amenity reasons. This isolation can diminish the advantage of having clear sight lines to key vulnerability points.

††† The Turner-Fenton Secondary School in Ontario used the principles of crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) to reduce the number of trespassers loitering on and vandalizing school property. Reorienting the school's parking lot increased opportunities for natural surveillance and improved entry-point control. Separating the gymnasium from classroom areas with partitions and safety glass improved opportunities for natural surveillance in vulnerable corridors (Peel Regional Police 1996).

18. Providing caretaker or "school sitter" housing on school grounds. The continuous presence of a caretaker or "school sitter" on school grounds can deter potential intruders. An apartment in the school itself or a mobile home on the school grounds can provide rent-free housing to a responsible adult in exchange for a designated number of hours patrolling the property.† An alternative to having an on-site residence is to stagger custodial shifts for 24-hour coverage. In either arrangement, it is important that the caretaker or custodian is instructed not to intervene in suspicious activity, but rather to alert security staff or the police.52

† It is important that mobile units be positioned to afford a clear view of as much of the school as possible, including the most likely approach and escape routes (Poyner 1984).

19. Holding offenders accountable. Very few perpetrators of school vandalism are identified and apprehended, and even fewer are prosecuted. Courts are generally lenient with offenders, and in most cases, the damage from an individual incident is minor and does not warrant harsh penalties. However, creative and well-publicized interventions to hold offenders accountable can have both a specific and a general deterrence effect.

The most traditional approach to offender accountability involves either individual or group counseling to address the underlying motivations for the behavior. There has been some success with juvenile arsonists using this approach, and counseling that entails behavior modification (token economy, contingency contracts, incentives, and rewards) has had some success.53

Restitution programs include a set of administrative and legal procedures to get money from offenders to pay for repair or replacement of damaged property. Publicizing the results of these efforts is important to maintain their deterrent effect.54 Obviously, these programs are effective only to the extent that offenders are identified and apprehended.

One of the more promising approaches to encouraging offender accountability is to bring together all of the stakeholders in the issue to develop a resolution collectively. The goal is for the offender to make up for the offense, either by paying restitution or by repairing the damaged property.†

† Strang (2002) describes how restorative justice programs have been implemented in Australia to deal with school vandalism. Nicholl (2000) explains the seven basic elements of restorative justice.

20. Diverting offenders to alternative activities. Believing that involvement in school vandalism and break-ins arises from an excess of unstructured time, many jurisdictions develop alternative activities for students during after-school and evening hours. In addition to structured events, graffiti boards and mural programs may attract offenders to prosocial activities.55 Programs that foster a sense of ownership and school pride may make some students more apt to report vandalism and encourage others to respect school property, but they are unlikely to affect students whose involvement in vandalism is a result of alienation from the larger school social environment.

School Management Practices

21. Educating school staff. Not only should school staff be familiar with fire safety procedures, but they should also be aware of the various strategies enacted to protect school property. The strategies should be discussed regularly at staff meetings, and police and fire departments should be included in pre-school year and pre-summer in-service training. Creating a manual containing important safety information, procedures for handling emergencies, and telephone numbers of those to be contacted when suspicious activity is observed ensures that teachers will have ready access to those details.††

†† A handbook containing practical guidance on property risk management was created and distributed to all head teachers in Scotland as part of a vandalism reduction strategy (Accounts Commission for Scotland 2001). [Full text]

22. Controlling building and room keys. Intruders sometimes enter school buildings by using duplicate keys. The distribution of keys to building entrances and equipment storage rooms should be limited, and periodic key checks can be used to ensure that the owners of keys have control of them.56 Stamping DO NOT DUPLICATE on keys and warning key holders of the dangers of students obtaining keys can prevent unauthorized access. Some jurisdictions use computer access cards, rather than keys, for rooms where valuables are stored. These cards permit access only at certain times of the day, and records can show which card was used to access any particular room.57
23. Maintaining an inventory of valuable equipment. Missing equipment sometimes goes unreported because school officials do not know what they have, and therefore do not know when it has been stolen.58 Diligent inventory checks can not only help in maintaining control of school assets, but can also help in preparing loss estimates if property is stolen. Sound inventory procedures include:
  • Taking stock of all valuables
  • Keeping both paper and computerized inventory lists
  • Supplementing inventory lists with serial numbers, physical descriptions, and video images
  • Securing inventory lists and videotapes off-site
  • Updating inventory lists each year.59
24. Creating a "vandalism account." To provide incentives to students for acceptable conduct, school districts can allocate a specific amount of money from the maintenance account to cover the costs of all vandalism-related repairs. Any funds that remain at the end of the semester are allocated to students to pay for something of their choice (e.g., a pizza party, new equipment, a dance or other social event).† Programs involving rewards are most effective with younger students, but older students often respond to the opportunity for shared administrative authority and responsibility.60 Some jurisdictions do not deduct repair costs if the perpetrator is identified and restitution is made, which gives students an incentive to provide information.61

† Typically, the school administers the account. One possible variation is for students to administer the account and to take responsibility for paying all of the bills for property replacement and repair. This helps students to better appreciate the real costs associated with even minor acts of vandalism (Casserly, Bass, and Garrett 1980).

25. Changing the organizational climate. Social measures are not generally effective forms of crime prevention. However, because schools have closely structured social systems and clear authority systems, responses that affect the social environment can be effective.62 In particular, schools can seek to make the environment more positively reinforcing, reduce the misuse of disciplinary procedures, and work to improve administrator-teacher, teacher-student, and custodian-student relations.††

†† Mayer et al. (1987) created a school discipline survey to assess the quality of disciplinary procedures (pp. 204–206).

Community-Focused Responses

26. Providing rewards for information concerning vandalism or break-ins. Offender-focused responses require that vandals and intruders be identified and apprehended. Police investigations of vandalism incidents can be enhanced by high-quality information provided by students and community residents. As seen with traditional "Crime Stoppers" programs, setting up telephone or internet-based tip-lines, offering rewards for information, and guaranteeing anonymity encourage students and residents to come forward with specific information.††† The most effective programs actively involve students in collecting and synthesizing information for police, and in determining payout amounts in the event of apprehension.63

††† Aryani, Alsabrook, and Garrett (2001) provide specific information for setting up a Scholastic Crime Stoppers program, including administrative tips and responsibilities for police agencies, school administrators, and students. [Full text]

27. Creating "School Watch" programs. Similar to "Neighborhood Watch" efforts, community residents can conduct citizen patrols of school property during evenings and weekends. Membership and regular participation in voluntary patrols increase when some form of prestige is offered to volunteers.† Effective practices include:
  • Patrolling regularly, but at unpredictable times
  • Equipping volunteers with cell phones for prompt communication with police or other emergency services
  • Engaging in passive surveillance only, and not interacting with potential vandals or intruders in any way
  • Publicizing activities and outcomes among students and residents through school-based and local media outlets.64

† Schools in Hartlepool, England, took the unusual step of targeting young school children (ages four to 11) in their efforts. After the initiative was launched in 33 primary schools, all students received pens and pencils with the "School Watch" logo, and were reminded of the initiative throughout the year through creative classroom activities. Involving students makes them feel important and also teaches good citizenship. As a result, the number of incidents and the associated costs decreased (Cleveland Police 1999). [Full text]

In response to a specific problem or rash of incidents, School Watch has produced short-term reductions in vandalism.65 However, community watch programs are difficult to sustain, have not been shown to reduce crime over the long-term, and may actually increase the fear of crime.66

28. Evaluating public use of school facilities after hours. There is no consensus on how effective after-hours use of school facilities is in deterring vandalism and break-ins. On the one hand, making facilities and amenities available to residents increases the opportunities for natural surveillance to protect school buildings and property. Such access is also in keeping with the spirit of schools as hubs of community activity. However, residents who use the facilities after hours may not always have innocent intentions. If this response is adopted, rules and boundaries should be made very clear to participants, and only those areas required for the activities should be accessible, with other areas of the school secured by movable gates and locking partitions.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

29. Controlling the sale of vandalism tools. Some jurisdictions have attempted to control the various implements used for vandalism—for graffiti, in particular. Age-specific bans on the sale of spray paint or wide-tipped markers are designed to limit youth access to them. These bans are particularly difficult to implement and enforce because they require extensive cooperation from merchants.67
30. Increasing penalties. Responding to school vandalism and break-ins with excessively punitive criminal justice sanctions or harsh administrative punishments (for example, expulsion) has been found to increase the incidence of vandalism.68 Further, legal deterrents are generally ineffective when victim reporting and offender apprehension are not consistent, as is the case with school vandalism.69 Finally, most acts of vandalism are relatively minor, and thus are not serious enough to warrant severe consequences.70
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