Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of school vandalism and break-ins. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular problem of school vandalism and break-ins, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on.

Traditionally, schools have focused almost exclusively on maintenance records for information on vandalism levels. These records should contain specific information on the location, type, entry method, time, suspected perpetrators, and other details essential to developing informed responses. Further, schools should report all incidents of vandalism and burglary, no matter how trivial, so that an assessment of the impact on individual schools and entire districts can be done.

New technology for mapping and analyzing incidents that occur in and around schools can reveal patterns and suggest possible reasons for them. The analysis should be as specific as possible to allow for precision in developing responses.

† The School Crime Operations Package (School COP) is a free software program for entering, mapping, and analyzing incidents that occur in and around schools. Developed by Abt Associates under a contract with the National Institute of Justice, the software is available at http://www.schoolcopsoftware.com/index.htm.

You can get some of the answers needed to understand your local problem from school risk assessments the police and fire departments have done. These assessments are primarily concerned with a school’s physical environment, building(s), grounds, policies, procedures, personnel, and technology, but also may address the social and academic environments relevant to crime prevention.

† Atkinson (2002) created a guide for fostering school partnerships with law enforcement, and for using the SARA model to analyze various crime problems affecting schools. [Full text] Sample school assessments are provided by Schneider, Walker, and Sprague (2000), and in the National Crime Prevention Council’s (2003) School Safety and Security Toolkit, available at http://www.ncpc.org/cms/cms-upload/ncpc/files/BSSToolkit_Complete.pdf.

Student and staff surveys are also useful for gaining insight into how the problem takes shape in your jurisdiction.

Beyond the physical security that armed, uniformed school resource officers (SROs) can provide, they are also excellent sources of information about the size of, scope of, and current responses to the problem. Because SROs from different schools are well connected to each other, they bring a systemwide or regional perspective to the information-gathering process.

Incidents

  • How many school vandalism incidents were reported to the police in the past year? How many weren’t? Why weren’t they?
  • How many school break-ins were reported to the police? How many weren’t? Why weren’t they?
  • How many school fires were reported to the police and fire departments? How many weren’t? Why weren’t they?
  • What were the repair and replacement costs for all incidents?
  • Were the costs generally spread out among many smaller incidents, or concentrated among a few larger incidents?

Targets

  • How accessible are school grounds and buildings? What type of fencing exists? How visible are building entrances?
  • What, specifically, is being damaged?
  • What are the characteristics of the main entry points for unauthorized access to the school buildings?
  • What are the characteristics of the main areas of the school’s interior that are damaged?
  • What is being stolen during break-ins? From where in the school? Who has legitimate access to the area(s) when the incidents occur?
  • How are stolen goods being disposed of (sold for cash, traded for other goods, used by thieves)?
  • Where are most fires started?
  • What materials are used to start fires? Are materials obtained on-site or brought in from outside? Are accelerants used?

Offenders

  • For what proportion of incidents are offenders apprehended? What are their characteristics (e.g., age, gender, grade, school of attendance)? What proportions are students versus nonstudents?
  • Do offenders operate alone or in groups? How active are they? Do they reoffend even after getting caught?
  • How do they travel to and from the school?
  • What reasons do students offer for why youth engage in school vandalism and break-ins? Do students view peers who engage in vandalism and break-ins negatively? If not, why?
  • What reasons do offenders give for their behavior?
  • How motivated to damage school property do offenders seem to be? How sophisticated are they?

Times

  • At what times of the day do vandalism, break-ins, and arson occur? On what days of the week? At what times of the year?
  • Do these times correspond with other events?
  • Are incidents clustered in time, or spread over time?

Community Characteristics

  • What are the surrounding community’s characteristics (e.g., isolated or active, commercial or residential)?
  • How concerned are community members about the problem? How willing are they to get involved in solving it?
  • What characterizes the media’s coverage of the problem (if there is any)?
  • What types of community activities occur in the school(s) after hours? How is access to the rest of the building limited during these times? To what extent do vandalism incidents correspond with the activities?

Current Responses

  • What are the current practices regarding surveillance (either electronic or human) of grounds and buildings after hours?
  • How are the school entrances secured after hours? How are windows secured?
  • What types of alarms, sensors, and security cameras are used? What building areas do they cover?
  • What valuable equipment does the school own? How is it stored? Who can access it, and how so?
  • How quickly is property damage repaired?
  • What are the schools’ insurance arrangements? What actions, if any, have insurance loss- prevention agents recommended to school officials?
  • What school sanctions are used against apprehended offenders? What criminal justice sanctions are used? How do parents respond?

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

Regular monitoring is vital to developing a clear understanding of how each response affects school vandalism and break-ins. You should modify or discontinue ineffective responses. Event- and response-level monitoring requires a quality information system that includes specific details about the acts, the perpetrators, and the contextual factors, as well as data on how and when the responses were implemented.

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to school vandalism and break-ins:

  • decreased number of incidents of vandalism directed at exterior of school buildings or grounds;
  • decreased number of incidents of vandalism directed at interior of school buildings;
  • decreased amount and/or value of equipment stolen;
  • decreased number of fires set intentionally;
  • decreased frequency of incidents of vandalism and break-ins (e.g., from weekly to monthly);
  • decreased total costs of repairing damaged property and replacing stolen equipment; and
  • decreased insurance premiums (if applicable).

Some additional measures that, while not directly indicating effectiveness, may suggest that the situation is improving include

  • increased percentage of incidents reported to police;
  • decreased student tolerance regarding school vandalism and break-ins;
  • increased number of tips received from students and residents;
  • increased proportion of incidents for which offender is caught; and
  • increased amount of restitution ordered and paid.