Schools and Crime

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Most school crime, like crime outside the school, is nonviolent. Teachers and students report thefts of money and valuables from unattended desks; student lockers are broken into; teachers' pocketbooks are snatched; bicycles are stolen. Other nonviolent offenses include such acts by students as using and selling drugs, drinking alcoholic beverages, defacing walls and desks, and setting minor fires in wastebaskets and toilet bowls. Violations of rules specific to schools also occur: walking the corridors without a pass, cursing a teacher, cutting a class, and truanting.

Less frequent but more disturbing offenses are violent crimes: assaults, robberies, and, occasionally, rapes and murders. Violent offenses create anxiety in students and teachers out of proportion to their frequency. They are unusual in private, parochial, and rural schools but occur with greater frequency in suburban schools, the secondary schools of small cities, and the junior and senior high schools of large cities. Some secondary schools in large cities have so much violent crime that students and teachers regard the schools as war zones. Students sometime claim that they stay away from such schools out of fear, and teachers refer to some of their nominal sick-day absences as "mental health" days. In addition to encountering violence inside school buildings, students, teachers, and other school employees are vulnerable to violence traveling to and from school, in parking lots, and in school-yards.

Sources of information about school crime

There are several main sources of information about school crime. One source consists of the informal observations of participants in the educational process, especially teachers and former teachers (for example, see Gerson). Since the schools are part of a major social institution involving millions of people in diverse roles, such observations are constantly issued in both personal and organizational reports. Teachers' unions have school safety committees that collect and tabulate the crime incidents in which teachers are victimized; they are especially interested in assaults on and robberies of teachers (United Federation of Teachers).

Boards of education also collect from principals and teachers information about school offenses, especially violent ones. Journalists are another source, since they visit schools; interview students, teachers, crime victims, and perpetrators; and report their conclusions in the media. Finally, there is systematic survey research. In 1976 the National Institute of Education of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare obtained questionnaire responses from 31,373 public-school students and 23,895 public-school teachers about their victimization experiences in 642 junior and senior high schools (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare). The results, published in a 1978 report to Congress, provided the first quantitative comparisons of the rates of robbery, assault, and larceny in public secondary schools across the United States. Somewhat surprisingly, students were victimized to about the same extent in large and small communities except for a somewhat higher rate in cities of a million or more; however, within large school systems some schools were much more dangerous than others. Teacher victimization, on the other hand, increased overall in proportion to the size of the community. The main deficiency of this landmark study was that it did not ask student respondents about their own violent behavior because raising this crucial issue would have jeopardized access to some school systems.

The Bureau of the Census administered the National Crime Survey (later renamed the National Crime Victimization Survey) in twenty-six large American cities in 1974 and 1975. Data were obtained on various types of victimization covering approximately ten thousand households in each city. These were later analyzed to provide information about offenses committed inside big-city schools (U.S. Department of Justice). Whereas the National Institute of Education study collected reports of personal victimization from both students and teachers, the twenty-six-city National Crime Survey also contained data about the victimization of school staff members other than teachers. However, these data were limited to school crime in very large cities. Several states have conducted statewide studies of school violence and vandalism, such as the Hawaii Crime Commission's analysis of six thousand questionnaires completed by principals, counselors, teachers, and students in 1979 (Hawaii Crime Commission).

The School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey collected national data on school crime in 1989 and 1995, as reported by students (Bastian and Taylor; Chandler et al.). Then, after a series of highly publicized school murders in 19971998, President Bill Clinton called on the Departments of Justice and Education to produce an annual report on school violence. One response of the statistical agencies of the two departments was to plan a more regularly conducted School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, beginning in 1999 and scheduled for every two years thereafter. Another is a new biennial school-based survey starting in 2000 that collects data on crime and discipline problems in U.S. schools. Still another is an annual statistical report on a broad range of indicators of school crime and safety that will supplement the annual report on school safety aimed at the general public; these reports were first produced in 1998 (Kaufman et al.).

The victims

Since the systematic data on school crime were mainly derived from surveys of personal victimization, less is known about school crimes in which the victim was the school collectively than about crimes against students or teachers. The National Institute of Education estimated the annual cost of vandalism in American schools at $200 million, but these reports from principals about vandalism in the late 1970s were less complete and less trustworthy than the data from students and teachers about their own experiences with crimes (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare). The principals' accounts of offenses against public order known to themdrug sales, intoxication, false fire alarms, and bomb threatsand of theft of school property, including larcenies that resulted from burglaries, were also less reliable than victim reports on personal experiences.

The following conclusions can be drawn from the available data about the characteristics of individual victims:

  1. Students are more frequently the victims of violent crimes in school than are teachers. However, "robbery" of a student may mean extortion of lunch money or bus passes by fellow students, whereas robbery of a teacher is more often perpetrated by youthful intruders and accompanied by gratuitous violence.
  2. Male students are more than twice as likely to be victims of both robbery and assault than female students.
  3. In 1976, when data for the nationwide Safe Schools study was being collected, the rate of violent victimizations in junior high schools was twice as high as the rate of violent victimizations in senior high schools (U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare). In 1989 and 1995 the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that violent victimizations continued to occur at twice the rate in junior as in senior high schools (Bastian and Taylor; Chandler et al.). But the notion that high schools are safer than junior high schools from everyday school violence has been challenged by a small study of school violence by Louis Harris and Associates, conducted in 1993, which contradicted the findings of the larger studies; it indicated that high school violence was at least as prevalent as junior high school violence and perhaps worse (Louis Harris and Associates). Even assuming that the larger studies are correct and that there is more violence in junior high schools, without detailed self-report data it is not possible to choose between two inferences that might be drawn from the differential rate of victimization at different school levels: first, that junior high school is a violent stage of youth development and that youngsters grow more peaceful as they pass into the high school years; and second, that some junior high school youngsters are violent but that these antisocial youngsters tend to drop out gradually so that high schools are safer, on the average, than junior high schools.
  4. Younger, less experienced teachers are more likely to be attacked or robbed than older colleagues.
  5. Minority students are more likely to be attacked or robbed at school than white students. This is probably because they are more likely to attend schools with higher rates of violence, located in less affluent neighborhoods. The greater the proportion of minority students in a school, the higher the rate of attacks on, and robberies of, both students and teachers.
  6. The larger the school, the more extensive the vandalism. The bigger pool of potential perpetrators and the anonymity in a large school may explain the relationship between the dollar value of school property losses and school size.

The perpetrators

Although we lack self-report data from perpetrators, victims of school crime have been able to provide some descriptive information about perpetrators because, especially with violent offenses, victims have close and memorable contacts with those who prey on them. Conclusions about offenders, based on victim reports, include the following:

  1. The majority of perpetrators of violent school crimes are recognized by their victims. This suggests that most of the offenders are fellow students, not intruders from the outside community. However, when the victims of school crime in large cities are considered separately, the majority of the perpetrators are unknown to the victims, partly because of the anonymity of large urban schools where even enrolled students attend irregularly and partly because intruders contribute significantly to school violence in large cities. Intruders are not much older, on the average, than students, as nearly as the victims can judge.
  2. A greater proportion of the violence directed at teachers than at students is committed by intruders, especially in inner-city schools. Parents and other relatives of students are a special category of intruder and are responsible for some assaults on teachers and other staff members.
  3. The bulk of the perpetrators of school crime are male youths.
  4. An appreciable portion of the robberies and assaults of both teachers and students (about 25%) is perpetrated by groups of three or more offenders.
  5. The majority of perpetrators of school violence in large cities in the 1979 study were identified by the teacher and student victims as black males, even though in the twenty-six cities surveyed, blacks comprised only 29 percent of the general school population at that time.
  6. According to student reports in the 1995 survey, only 0.1 of 1 percent of male students (and virtually no female students) said that they brought guns to school. However, more than 12 percent of the students of both sexes said that they knew students who brought guns to school and about half that number actually saw a student with a gun in school. Public schools in the central cities had considerably more guns than private schools or public schools outside of central cities, as might be expected.
  7. The School Crime Supplements to the National Crime Victimization Survey of 1989 and 1995 went beyond victimization questions to ask respondents about bringing weapons to school themselves as well as knowledge of other students who brought them. But apart from the weapons questions, this large-scale survey, like the other earlier school victimization surveys, avoided asking student respondents self-report questions about their own rule violations or criminal behavior.
  8. Only about 40 percent of sixth-grade students reported in both 1989 and 1995 that illegal drugs are readily available in their schools, but by the seventh grade a majority report easy availability of illegal drugs, and the proportion rises monotonically until the twelfth grade, where it exceeds 80 percent. These same studies reported more violent victimizations in junior high schools than in senior high schools. Drug availability and violence do not necessarily go hand in hand.
  9. According to teacher unions and the reports of big-city boards of education, 5 to 10 percent of enrolled students produce almost all of the violence. If indeed a small proportion of the student population is responsible for the school crime problem, identifying such troublemakers and putting them into special schools or special programs could make all schools safe (Shanker).

The causes of school crime

Any specific offense stems from both the personality of the offender and his sociocultural milieu. In addition, those sociocultural factors conducive to school crime tend to operate more strongly on disturbed personalities.

Personality causes. The personalities of some children predispose them to rule-violative behavior in the school setting, and especially to aggressive violence. Formerly, such children were expelled or given lengthy suspensions from public schools. This is less likely to happen today, for two reasons. First, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Pub. L. 94142, 89 Stat. 773, codified in scattered sections of 20 U.S.C.) stipulates that every handicapped child is entitled to a free public education and also that such an education shall be provided in the least restrictive educational setting (Hewett and Watson). Since emotionally disturbed children are considered handicapped, they are entitled to education in the mainstream along with physically handicapped children. Second, the Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez (419 U.S. 565 (1975)) that a state enacting a compulsory attendance law is obliged to educate children until the age specified in the law is reached; and that the school's obligations are greater for students in danger of expulsion or suspension for more than ten days than for students subject to less severe disciplinary penalties. The combined impact of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and the Court ruling is that it became difficult to remove violent students younger than sixteen years of age from public schools (Toby, 1983). Such students therefore continue contributing to school crime.

Sociocultural causes. In the 1990s, public schools probably contained a higher proportion of violence-prone emotionally disturbed children than was the case a generation earlier. But contemporary schools also contained a higher proportion of students without diagnosed emotional handicaps who behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable a generation earlier. Both changes were facilitated by a more liberal cultural climate that placed greater emphasis on children's rights, including the rights of children accused of school crimes (Toby, 1980).

This liberal cultural climate complicates the general problem of social control over potential misbehavior. The larger the school and the more anonymous its students and teachers, the less affected the students are by expressions of disapproval from teachers and even from classmates (Toby, 1998). In addition, schools in modern societies tend to be isolated physically and psychologically from parents and others in the local community whose reactions are important to students. Paradoxically, the professionalization and specialization of education increase the isolation of schools from local communities and thereby increase the probability of student misbehavior.

Furthermore, the trend has been to raise the age to which school attendance is compulsory, on the assumption that all children need a longer period of education in order to participate in an information-oriented society. However, there may be a downside to compulsory attendance. While some kids are unhappy in school for academic reasons, others, such as those who perpetrated violence at Columbine High School, in a middle-class suburb of Denver, experience acute social and personal crises. After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot to death a teacher, a dozen of their schoolmates, and themselves at school in the spring of 1999, newspapers and TV stations speculated on where responsibility for this tragedy lay. But an obvious question was not raised: Why, if these two students were so miserable at school, did they not drop out and get jobs? A fresh setting just might have given them a new lease on life. Apparently the social stigma of dropping out of high school makes that option unthinkable in middle-class suburbs.

Kids in inner-city high schools are more likely than kids in middle-class suburbs to drop out when schoolwork does not enjoy sufficient parental or peer group support or when individual circumstances interfere with acquiring academic skills. In a sense they are less trapped than middle-class kids in suburban schools. But the high dropout rate of the inner city is deplored and inner-city kids too are under pressureformal pressure from compulsory attendance laws and informal dropout-prevention arguments from teachers, parents, and the larger societyto remain enrolled whether they find school meaningful or not. Thus, inner-city and suburban schools both contain unwillingly enrolled students. In inner-city secondary schools the main consequence of containing a substantial population of involuntary students who lack a stake in behavioral conformity (Toby, 1957) is an undermining of the educational process. This increases the likelihood of low-level chronic crime and violence in such schools: everyday school violence rather than the explosive violence that sometimes erupts in middle-class schools.

Everyday school violence is fostered by the disorganized educational process of inner-city schools. When students do not perceive school as contributing to their futures, they have little incentive to be respectful to their teachers or to try to please them; they cope in various ways with being compelled to spend a good part of their time in an environment they dislike. Some truant. Some clown around for the amusement of their friends and themselves. Some come to school drunk or high on illegal drugs. Some wander the halls looking for friends to speak with or enemies to fight. Some assault other kids or extort money or valuables from them, partly for profit but also for kicks.

Unlike a prison, where a prisoner participates in the program willy-nilly, education in any meaningful sense depends on a cooperative relationship between teacher and student, not on the occasional presence of an enrolled student in a classroom. Professors Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, Bradford Brown of the University of Wisconsin, and Sandford Dornbusch of Stanford University conducted a massive study of twelve thousand students in nine high schools in Wisconsin and northern California from 1937 to 1990. They described a substantial minority of students in American high schools as being "disengaged" from the educational enterprise, which they defined as follows:

Disengaged students . . . do only as much as it takes to avoid getting into trouble. They do not exert much effort in the classroom, are easily distracted during class, and expend little energy on in-school or out-of-school assignments. They have a jaded, often cavalier attitude toward education and its importance to their future success or personal development. When disengaged students are in school, they are clearly just going through the motions. When they are not in school, school is the last thing on their mind. (Steinberg, p. 15)

Steinberg, Brown, and Dornbusch were primarily interested in academic achievement, not in school violence, but the two are related. When the proportion of disengaged students in a high school is small, the educational process suffers but teachers are able to maintain control in the classrooms, corridors, and lunchrooms. When the proportion of disengaged students in a school is high, the school tips into disorder, and everyday school violence becomes endemic.

A complementary problem in schools with high proportions of disengaged students is disengaged teachers. One consequence of having disengaged students still enrolled in high schools but making no effort to learn anything is that teachers get discouraged. It is difficult to teach a lesson that depends on material taught yesterday or last week when an appreciable number of students are not in class regularly or fail to pay attention when they do come. Eventually these circumstances lead some teachers to "burn out," that is, to despair at the seemingly hopeless task of stuffing ideas into the heads of uninterested students (Dworkin). Others retire early, change to another profession, or take jobs in private or parochial schools at a cut in pay. Thus, teacher turnover rates are high, especially in inner-city schools with substantial proportions of internal dropouts, sometimes called "stayins" (Toby, 1989). New York City, for example, constantly has to hire new teachers (or substitute teachers) to replenish those who abandon their jobs. Of course some public school teachers hold on grimly, taking as many days off as they are entitled to.

But burned-out teachers lose effectiveness at teaching those in their classes amenable to education; this probably partly explains the greater satisfaction of students and their parents with charter schools and with private and parochial schools available through voucher programs than with public schools (Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore; Coleman and Hoffer; Peterson and Hassel). Burned-out teachers are also ineffective at preventing student misbehavior. The public thinks of teachers primarily as educators, not as agents of control. Teachers themselves tend to downplay their disciplinary role. Some object to hall or cafeteria duty on the grounds that they are not policemen. If pressed, however, teachers will agree that control of the class is a prerequisite for education.

Whatever the reasons for the reluctance of individual teachers to admonish misbehaving students, partly out of fear for their own safety, partly out of the desire to be popular, this reluctance implies at least partial abandonment of their role as guardians of school order. When teachers see student misbehavior and turn away to avoid the necessity of a confrontation, adult control over students diminishes at school, thereby encouraging student misbehavior that might otherwise not occur. In short, teachers' reluctance to admonish misbehaving students may be partly the cause of the high level of disorder in some schools as well as its effect. The formal controls that have developed in big-city schools are a partial result of the breakdown of informal social controls over students, such as the expression of teacher approval or disapproval. Informal controls still work quite well in the smaller schools of smaller communities.

Instead of the natural peacekeepers, teachers, preventing disorder and even violence from breaking out, many school systems have resorted to security guards, and some schools also have metal detectors to screen for knives and guns. In the mid 1990s, the District of Columbia school system employed 250 security officersalong with metal detectors in place in 31 schools. A few years later, New York City employed 3,200 security officers, as well as metal detectors. Security guards and metal detectors are useful for innercity schools that need protection against invading predators from surrounding violent neighborhoods and to break up fights that teachers are afraid to tackle. But security programs cannot be the main instrument for preventing student misbehavior in public secondary schools because security guards are not ordinarily in classrooms where teachers are alone with their students. Furthermore, there are never enough security guards to maintain order in hallways or gyms or cafeterias or to prevent assaults or robberies by their mere presence. In January 1992, while Mayor Dinkins was at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, New York, to deliver a speech, accompanied by bodyguards and security guards, two students were fatally shot by an angry fifteen-year-old classmate (Toby, 1992). In short, security guards constitute a second line of defense; they cannot by themselves provide a disciplined environment within which the educational process can proceed effectively.

Involuntary students and a paucity of effective adult guardians help to explain why everyday school violence is so difficult to control in public secondary schools in the United States. But there is a third factor: the official curriculum sponsored by boards of education, principals, and teachers does not monopolize student activity. A large public secondary school is not only an educational institution; for students without strong academic interests it is more like a bazaar, a place where a multiplicity of activities are available for students interested in them: history and geography, yes, but also football, basketball, the student newspaper, chess, romance, sex, extortion from fellow students, and opportunities to make teachers' lives as difficult as possible. Although adults think of the school as an educational opportunity, the education that students take advantage of may be quite different from that envisioned in the formal curriculum. At school students learn lessons that teachers do not teach them.

The term "extracurricular" presupposes that clubs and sports supplement rather than displace the paramount academic pursuits of enrolled students. For most students, especially those who anticipate applying to college, extracurricular interests show that they are well-rounded persons. However, for some students the extracurricular activities take the place of the academic curriculum; the football or basketball player who has no interest in academic subjects is the usual example, but interests in drama or the chorus or the newspaper can also come at the expense of academic achievement. But at least these activities are recognized as legitimate by school authorities. There are, however, other offerings that are by no stretch of the imagination legitimate.

Certainly no school would say that armed robbery is a curriculum offering in its school. But insofar as there is a tradition of predatory extortion by gangs or cliques against weak and fearful schoolmates, some students rehearse the process of preying on their fellows until they become quite skillful at it. In effect, they learn to rob at school. Alcohol and drugs constitute another illegitimate curriculum among the many that compete for student attention. Student interest in drugs and alcohol feeds a counterculture hostile to academic effort, which in turn undermines the authority of teachers and reduces their ability to control student misbehavior.

The effects of school crime

An obvious effect of school crime is a fear reaction from persons who study or work in school buildings. Although crime is a problem in the neighborhoods from which students, teachers, and other staff members come, it seems worse in the schools, especially in the case of violent offenses. This is partly because members of the school community must expose themselves daily to whatever threats exist, since their obligations require their presence in the school. In response, teachers, students, and parents urge boards of education to allocate funds for collective protection: for security guards, for intercoms to facilitate the summoning of help, and for related technological resources. Thus, another effect of school crime is to increase the cost of operating the school system. Less measurable than the additional expense is the reduced morale of students, teachers, and staff members exposed to personal danger and potential theft. As a result, schools with serious crime problems have difficulty in retaining students and teachers. Parents enroll their children elsewherein parochial, private, charter, and suburban schools. The loss of students is a serious problem because those students who transfer tend to be more educationally oriented and consequently their departure lowers the academic standards of the schools they leave. But the loss of experienced, effective teachers is worse. Additionally, substitutes are difficult to recruit in a low-morale, high-crime school (Archibold).

Since school crime is concentrated in public schools, one of its effects is to contribute to dissatisfaction with public education. This dissatisfaction is partly a direct consequence of crimeparents dislike sending their children to unsafe schoolsand partly an indirect consequence: it is more difficult to maintain order in schools with high crime rates, and disorder means that students do not learn as much. A study of students at more than a thousand public, parochial, and private high schools throughout the United States revealed that students at public high schools learned less on the average than students at parochial and private schools (Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore). The study attributed this difference to the less orderly atmosphere in public schools, which had more truancy, more cutting of classes. Thus, school crime contributes to dissatisfaction with the public schools by making the schools more expensive and by creating a disorderly, fear-ridden atmosphere that undermines academic achievement.

Remedial measures to reduce school crime

A possible strategy for reducing school crime and violence builds on three sociocultural facilitators of crime that may be amenable to change:

  1. Giving high-school-age youngsters a choice between attending high school and dropping out with an option to return later. This deals with the entrapment problem. Students disengaged from school might go to work and return to a regular high school program more amenable to school discipline when they recognize that they need more education. A voluntary high school population will learn more, be happier, and is less likely to behave violently toward teachers and fellow students. Japanese high schools are voluntary and are not only successful in promoting academic achievement and school safety; they influence Japanese junior high school students to take schoolwork seriously because junior high school students must demonstrate by performance their admissibility into high school (Rohlen).
  2. Introducing adults with more conventional values into high schools to buttress the authority of teachers and thereby to serve as guardians of order. Chicago's DuSable High School, an all-black school close to a notorious public housing project, demonstrated the practicality of offering the opportunity for repentant dropouts from the neighborhood to enroll as regular students (Wilkerson). Some of these adult students were embarrassed to meet their children in the hallways; some of their children were embarrassed that their parents were schoolmates; some of the teachers at the high school were initially skeptical about mixing teenagers and adults in classes. But everyone agreed that the adult students took education seriously, worked harder than the teenage students, and set a good example. These adult students were not in school to bolster the authority of teachers. That was merely a by-product of their presence. Although most adults who wish to return to school will not be able to do so during the regular school day, much can be gained by encouraging even a handful of adult dropouts to return to regular high school classes, especially in inner-city high schools where student disengagement is frequent. Teachers who have a serious adult student or two in their classes are not alone with sullen or mutinous teenagers.
  3. Crowding out everyday school violence by increasing the vitality of the traditional academic curriculum. At present the average number of hours of homework done by students each week in public high schools in the United States is much less than the average number of hours of homework done by private high school students (Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore, p. 104). Since by comparison with Japanese high school students, American students do hardly any homework at all, it seems feasible to increase the amount of homework expected of American public high school students. The most important reason for doing so is academic. But an incidental effect might be to reduce everyday school violence by competing more effectively with illegitimate curricula like substance abuse and crime.

Jackson Toby

See also Education and Crime; Excuse: Infancy; Juvenile and Youth Gangs; Juvenile Justice: History and Philosophy; Juvenile Justice: Community Treatment; Juvenile Justice: Institutions; Juvenile Justice: Juvenile Courts; Juveniles in the Adult System; Juvenile Status Offenders; Juvenile Violent Offenders; Police: Handling of Juveniles; Prevention: Juveniles as Potential Offenders.


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