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School Vandalism and Break-Ins

Guide No.35 (2005)

by Kelly Dedel

The Problem of School Vandalism and Break-Ins

This guide addresses school vandalism and break-ins, describing the problem and reviewing the risk factors. It also discusses the associated problems of school burglaries and arson. The guide then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

The term school vandalism refers to willful or malicious damage to school grounds and buildings or furnishings and equipment. Specific examples include glass breakage, graffiti, and general property destruction. The term school break-in refers to an unauthorized entry into a school building when the school is closed (e.g., after hours, on weekends, on school holidays).

Related Problems

School vandalism and break-ins are similar to vandalism and break-ins elsewhere, and some of the responses discussed here may be effective in other settings. However, schools are unique environments; the factors underlying school vandalism and break-ins differ from those underlying similar acts elsewhere, and therefore must be analyzed separately. Related problems not addressed in this guide include

School break-ins typically fall into one of three categories:

While school vandalism and break-ins generally comprise many often-trivial incidents, in the aggregate, they pose a serious problem for schools and communities, and the police and fire departments charged with protecting them. Many school fires originate as arson or during an act of vandalism.2 Though less frequent than other types of school vandalism, arson has significant potential to harm students and staff. In the United Kingdom in 2000, approximately one-third of school arson fires occurred during school hours, when students were present, a significant proportional increase since 1990.3

Over the past two decades, concerns about school violence, weapons, drugs, and gangs have eclipsed concern and discussion about school vandalism, its causes, and possible responses. However, even as concerns about student and staff safety from violence have become school administrators’ top priority, vandalism and break-ins continue to occur regularly and to affect a significant proportion of U.S. schools. From 1996 to 1997, the incidence of murder, suicide, rape, assault with a weapon, and robbery at schools was very low.4 In contrast, over one-third of the nation’s 84,000 public schools reported at least one incident of vandalism, totaling 99,000 separate incidents.5
Graffiti tagging and other forms of defacement often mar school buildings and grounds.

Graffiti tagging and other forms of defacement often mar school buildings and grounds.

These statistics likely fail to reveal the magnitude of the problem. While the U.S. Department of Education, major education associations, and national organizations regularly compile data on school-related violence, weapons, and gang activity, they do not do so regarding school vandalism and break-ins. One reason for this may be that schools define vandalism very differently—some include both intentional and accidental damage, some report only those incidents that result in an insurance claim, and some include only those incidents for which insurance does not cover the costs.6 School administrators may hesitate to report all cases of vandalism, break-ins, or arson because they view some as trivial, or because they fear it will reflect poorly on their management skills.7 Partially because of the failure to report, few perpetrators are apprehended, and even fewer are prosecuted.8

The lack of consistency in reporting school vandalism and break-ins means that cost estimates are similarly imprecise. Vandalism costs are usually the result of numerous small incidents, rather than more-serious incidents. Various estimates reveal that the costs of school vandalism are both high and increasing.9 In 1970, costs of school vandalism in the United States were estimated at $200 million, climbing to an estimated $600 million in 1990.10 Not only does school vandalism have fiscal consequences associated with repairing or replacing damaged or stolen property and paying higher insurance premiums if schools are not self-insured, but it also takes its toll in terms of aspects such as difficulties in finding temporary accommodations and negative effects on student, staff, and community morale.

Not all incidents of vandalism and break-ins have the same effect on the school environment. Again, two useful dimensions for understanding the problem’s impact are the monetary cost (where the repair charges are high), and the social cost (where the event has a significant negative impact on student, staff, and community morale). Events with high monetary and social costs typically occur less frequently than those with low monetary and social costs.11

High—Social Cost—Low
High—Monetary Cost—Low

Type I—High Social/High Monetary

  • Destruction of media center, computer lab
  • Destruction of school records
  • Vandalism resulting in school closure

Type II—Low Social/High Monetary

  • Many broken windows
  • Cherry bomb(s) dropped in toilet(s)
  • Vandalism to vending machines

Type III—High Social/Low Monetary

  • Hate-motivated graffiti
  • Gang-related graffiti
  • Killing of classroom animals

Type IV—Low Social/Low Monetary

  • Turfed school grounds*
  • Tagger** or conventional graffiti
  • One broken window

Adapted from Vestermark and Blauvelt (1978)

*Refers to damage to school grounds caused by vehicles being driven across lawns and fields leaving deep tread marks.

**Refers to high volume, non-gang graffiti, complex works of street art, and more isolated or spontaneous acts of graffiti.

Factors Contributing to School Vandalism and Break-Ins

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Offender Characteristics

Those who vandalize or break into schools are typically young and male, acting in small groups. Vandalism and break-ins are most common among junior high school students, and become less frequent as students reach high school.12 Those involved in school-related arson are more likely to be in high school.13 Many vandals have done poorly academically, and may have been truant, suspended, or expelled.14 As is typical of many adolescents, students who vandalize and break into schools have a poor understanding of their behavior’s impact on others, and are more concerned with the consequences to themselves.15 Offenders are no more likely to be emotionally disturbed than their peers who do not engage in the behavior, nor are they any more critical of their classes, teachers, or school in general.16

While the majority of students do not engage in vandalism, they do not generally harbor negative feelings toward those who do. In other words, “vandalism is a behavior that students can perform without the risk of condemnation by other students.”17 Youth who lack full-time parental supervision during after-school hours have been found to be more involved in all types of delinquency than students whose parents are home when they return from school.18 In 2002-2003, 25 percent of all school-aged children were left to care for themselves after school, including half of children in grades 9 through 12 and one third of children in grades 6 though 8.19

Though far less frequently, adults sometimes commit school vandalism and break-ins. Most often, they do so to steal high-value items (e.g., computers, televisions, cameras) and sell them on the street.20 Adults are far less likely to maliciously deface or destroy school property.


The typical observer may think school vandalism and break-ins are pointless, particularly when the offenders have focused on property destruction and have taken nothing of value. One can better understand the behavior when considering it in the context of adolescence, when peer influence is a particularly powerful motivator. Most delinquent acts are carried out by groups of youths, and vandalism is no exception. Participating in vandalism often helps a youth to maintain or enhance his or her status among peers.21 This status comes with little risk since, in contrast to playing a game or fighting, there are no winners or losers.

Beyond peer influence, there are several other motivations for school vandalism:

As schools have become increasingly technologically equipped, thefts of electronic and high-tech goods have become more common.23 Computers, VCRs, and DVD players are popular targets because they are relatively easy to resell. Students also steal more-mundane items such as food and school supplies, for their own use.

In addition, youth may participate in school vandalism or break-ins in a quest for excitement.24 Some communities do not have constructive activities for youth during after-school hours and in the summer. Without structured alternatives, youth create their own fun, which may result in relatively minor vandalism or major property damage to schools and school grounds.


A high proportion of vandalism occurs, quite naturally, when schools are unoccupied—before and after school hours, on weekends, and during vacations—as well as later in the school week and later in the school year.25 Local factors, such as the community’s use of school facilities after hours, may also determine when vandalism is most likely to occur in any one school.


Schools are prime targets for vandalism and break-ins for a number of reasons:

Partially hidden entryways can provide opportunity for would-be vandals.

Partially hidden entryways can provide opportunity for would-be vandals.

Some schools are much more crime-prone than others, and repeat victimization is common.26 A school’s attractiveness as a vandalism target may also be related to its failure to meet some students’ social, educational, and emotional needs; students may act out to express their displeasure or frustration.27 Schools with either an oppressive or a hands-off administrative style, or those characterized as impersonal, unresponsive, and nonparticipatory, suffer from higher levels of vandalism and break-ins.28 Conversely, in schools with lower vandalism rates,

Certain physical attributes of school buildings and grounds also affect their vulnerability to vandalism and break-ins. In general, large, modern, sprawling schools have higher rates of vandalism and break-ins than smaller, compact schools.30 The modern, sprawling schools have large buildings scattered across campus, rather than clustered together. A school’s architectural characteristics may also influence the quality of administrative and teacher-student relationships that are developed, which can affect the school’s vulnerability. Common vandalism locations and typical entry points include31

Rooftops that are accessible only from within the building provide a greater degree of security.

Rooftops that are accessible only from within the building provide a greater degree of security.

Vandals damage schools that neglect grounds and building maintenance, those whose grounds have little aesthetic appeal, and those that do not appear to be occupied or looked after more often than they damage carefully tended and preserved schools.32

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.





Community Characteristics

Current Responses

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:

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

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.

    † 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).

    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.

  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.

    † 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.

    It is vital that students be involved in the problem-solving effort, including school leaders and more-marginalized students.

    †† 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).

    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.

    ††† 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

  1. 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 unclimbable 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.
    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.

    † 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.

    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

    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

  2. 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.

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.
  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

    †† See Goldstein (1996) and Schneider, Walker, and Sprague (2000) for more detailed information on using target-hardening devices at schools.

    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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    † 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.

    Though the initial financial outlay may be significant, over the long term, CCTV may be less expensive than funding a full-time security patrol.
  3. 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.

    †† 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.

    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.

    ††† 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).

    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
  4. 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.

    † 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).

    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
  5. 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.

  6. 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

  1. 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]

  2. 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
  3. 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; and
    • updating inventory lists each year.59
  4. 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).

    † 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).

    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
  5. 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

  1. 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.

    ††† 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]

    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
  2. 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.

    † 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 Department 1999). [Full text]

    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; and
    • publicizing activities and outcomes among students and residents through school-based and local media outlets.64

    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

  3. 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

  1. 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
  2. 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

Summary of Responses to Juvenile Runaways

The table below summarizes the responses to school vandalism and break-ins, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. 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.

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy
1. Recognizing the person-environment interaction Addresses personal motivations for and environmental facilitators of vandalism …multifaceted, potent combinations of responses are implemented Overreliance on environmental responses can make schools seem fortress-like
2. Establishing a task force Involves stakeholders with varying expertise …broad representation is sought, stakeholders are responsible for responses within their area of expertise, and student leaders and marginalized students are included Due to its complexity, the initiative requires a coordinator to ensure that all responses are implemented according to design and within targeted timelines
3. Using the media wisely Shows vandalism’s impact, such as the scale of resources squandered and feelings of loss among students …both local media and student media sources are used There is a risk that media attention may sensationalize events and promote the concept of achieving notoriety through high-profile crimes committed against school property
4. Setting priorities Targets events with both high financial and social costs …high-value items are protected, and priorities are established at the outset of the initiative It may not address factors that contribute to high-volume but nonserious vandalism
5. Operating at the district level Maximizes the efficiency of problem analysis and response implementation …individual schools are given the authority to fine-tune responses to address local conditions Requires both district- and school-level facilitators to make sure that action plans are carried out at each site
Specific Responses to School Vandalism and Break-Ins
Changes to the Physical Environment
6. Controlling access to deter unauthorized entry Makes it difficult to enter school grounds and buildings after hours …materials and devices are of good quality and cannot easily be broken or disabled It can be more costly to fortify the building than to repair the damage caused by vandalism; fire escape routes may be compromised; it can give buildings a foreboding appearance
7. Posting warning signs Lists prohibited activities, indicates that the school is cared for and controlled, and deters potential intruders …signs are prominently placed and are supplemented with architectural features such as gardens, sitting areas, and student artwork It may not deter highly motivated offenders; signs and architectural features may become vandalism targets
8. Storing valuables in secure areas Makes it harder and more time-consuming to steal valuables …valuables are stored in inner rooms with high-quality locking devices, and there are no signs indicating where high-value goods are It may be inconvenient to staff who regularly want to access equipment
9. Reducing the availability of combustibles Makes it harder to start a fire, by limiting the materials available on-site …trash cans are emptied regularly, and flammable chemicals are always properly secured It requires constant attention; it may be inconvenient to staff who regularly want to access chemicals
10. Inscribing valuables with identifying marks Reduces the incentive for burglary by making it hard to sell stolen goods …identifying marks are conspicuous and permanent It can make equipment less attractive; it is ineffective if the vandal wants to destroy the items
11. Adjusting indoor or outdoor lighting Either increases others’ ability to spot intruders or reduces intruders’ ability to see what they are doing …the community is aware of the school’s policy and knows how to report suspicious behavior to the police Well-lit campuses have high energy costs; “dark campuses” may compromise the safety of staff and others who are there for legitimate reasons
12. Obstructing vandals through physical barriers Makes it harder to damage property …high-quality, strong finishes and enclosures are used, and barriers are well maintained It does not address vandals’ underlying motivation; it can be expensive; potential offenders may see it as a challenge
13. Repairing damage quickly and improving the appearance of school grounds Gives the impression that the school is under steady surveillance by those concerned about keeping it safe …materials needed to repair damage or repaint surfaces are kept on hand It requires constant attention by maintenance staff; multiple repairs can be costly
14. Removing ground-floor glass windows and other vandalism targets Eliminates or fortifies easily damaged fixtures …features are considered when buildings are first designed, and high-quality glass substitutes are used It can be costly and decrease the building’s attractiveness
Offender-Focused Responses
15. Increasing the frequency of security-staff patrols Increases offenders’ risk of getting caught, and regular contact with police may improve reporting …patrols are consistent but unpredictable, and mainly conducted by school security staff, conserving police resources for response and investigation It requires significant manpower, which may be costly
16. Using closed- circuit television Increases offenders’ risk of getting caught, as footage may be used to identify them …equipment is placed and angled properly, and used to review incidents rather than to prompt intervention in ongoing incidents It is expensive and logistically difficult to install in existing buildings; cameras can be vandalized; it requires monitoring and consistent maintenance
17. Improving opportunities for natural surveillance Increases offenders’ risk of getting caught …residents are encouraged to be alert to suspicious activity, and know how to report it to police It is not useful if the school is in an isolated area
18. Providing caretaker or “school sitter” housing on school grounds Increases offenders’ risk of getting caught …the caretaker feels it is cost-beneficial and is a school employee Maintaining the residence may be costly; it may be hard to supervise the caretaker appropriately
19. Holding offenders accountable Deters would-be offenders from engaging in or repeating the behavior …it is combined with investigative enforcement activities, involves students in problem-solving, addresses offenders’ motivations, and is publicized during student orientation Its effectiveness is not well documented; few offenders are apprehended
20. Diverting offenders to alternative activities Decreases the amount of unstructured, unsupervised time offenders have; channels behavior in prosocial directions; and may encourage better reporting …programs encourage a sense of ownership, target students appropriately, and involve students in planning activities It may not involve the students most at risk for vandalism; it may not have credibility among disenfranchised student groups
School Management Practices
21. Educating school staff Increases the consistency with which other responses are applied, and increases offenders’ risk of getting caught …property protection procedures are discussed regularly at staff meetings, and procedures are documented in a manual It does not address offenders’ motivation or the environmental features that make the school vulnerable
22. Controlling building and room keys Reduces potential means of unauthorized access …the distribution of keys is limited, and periodic key checks are conducted It is limited to a single entry method; it depends on teacher vigilance and compliance with procedures
23. Maintaining an inventory of valuable equipment Improves the ability to detect when equipment has been stolen …detailed inventory lists are created and secured off-site, and are updated regularly It affects only the ability to confirm that property has been stolen; it has no prevention value
24. Creating a “vandalism account” Gives students an incentive to refrain from and report vandalism …rewards are made available periodically throughout the year It requires staff time to administer; apathetic youths can subvert the process; vandalism is not always committed by students; if no money is returned, the program loses credibility
25. Changing the organizational climate Makes the school more responsive to student needs, and addresses vindictive motivations …students are involved in identifying concerns and designing modifications It may be difficult to develop a plan; it requires motivated staff to implement changes; vandalism is not always committed by students
Community-Focused Responses
26. Providing rewards for information concerning vandalism or break-ins Increases incentives for students and residents to provide information, and increases offenders’ risk of getting caught …it is supported by local police, and students are given autonomy in running the program Investigation time may be wasted on inaccurate or misleading tips; it is not prevention-oriented
27. Creating “School Watch” programs Increases offenders’ risk of getting caught …patrols are regular but unpredictable, volunteers immediately contact the police if they see suspicious activities, and activities and outcomes are well publicized It can be hard to maintain resident participation levels; there is a risk of vigilantism among volunteers, and concerns about volunteer safety
28. Evaluating public use of school facilities after hours Increases offenders’ risk of getting caught …rules and boundaries are clear, and other areas of the school are secured Potential vandals or intruders may have unquestioned access to the school
Responses With Limited Effectiveness
29. Controlling the sale of vandalism tools Bans the sale of materials used for vandalism It requires extensive cooperation from merchants; it does not address other means of acquiring tools
30. Increasing penalties Imposes harsh punishments on offenders Punitive environments increase the incidence of vandalism; reporting is inconsistent, and apprehension rates are low; most acts of vandalism are minor and do not warrant severe penalties


[1] Hope (1982). [Full text]

[2] Sadler (1988).

[3] Arson Prevention Bureau (2003b). [Full text]

[4] Heaviside et al. (1998). [Full text]

[5] Heaviside et al. (1998) [Full text].

[6] Casserly, Bass, and Garrett (1980).

[7] Goldstein (1996).

[8] Sadler (1988).

[9] Goldstein (1996).

[10] National Education Association (1973); Stoner, Shinn, and Walker (1991).

[11] Vestermark and Blauvelt (1978).

[12] Tygart (1988). [Full text]

[13] Canter and Almond (2002). [Full text]

[14] Greenberg (1969); Yankelovich (1975); Tygart (1988). [Full text]

[15] Strang (2002).

[16] Goldstein (1997) [Full text]; Tygart (1988). [Full text]

[17] Tygart (1988). [Full text]

[18] Fox and Newman (1997). [Full text]

[19] Afterschool Alliance (2004). [Executive summary]

[20] Hope (1982). [Full text]

[21] Gladstone (1978). [Full text]

[22] Cohen (1971); Barker and Bridgeman (1994). [Full text]

[23] Patterson (1996).

[24] Black (2002).

[25] Goldstein (1996). [Full text]

[26] Burquest, Farrell, and Pease (1992).

[27] Harlan and McDowell (1980).

[28] Casserly, Bass, and Garrett(1980); Goldstein (1996).

[29] U.S. National Institute of Education (1977).

[30] Hope (1986). [Full text]

[31] Zeisel (1976).

[32] Pablant and Baxter (1975).

[33] Hope and Murphy (1983).

[34] Cooze (1995). [Full text]

[35] Allsop (1988). [Full text]

[36] Trump (1998).

[37] Casserly, Bass, and Garrett (1980).

[38] Green (1999).

[39] Sampson (2002). [Full text]

[40] Florida Department of Education (2003). [Full text]

[41] Blauvelt (1981).

[42] Arson Prevention Bureau (2003a). [Full text]

[43] Florida Department of Education (2003). [Full text]

[44] International Dark-Sky Association (1997) [Full text]; National Crime Prevention Council (1995).

[45] Clarke (1978). [Full text]

[46] Blauvelt (1981).

[47] Poyner (1984).

[48] Poyner (1984).

[49] Weisel (2002). [Full text]

[50] Casserly, Bass, and Garrett (1980).

[51] Goldstein (1997). [Full text]

[52] Zeisel (1976).

[53] Cooze (1995). [Full text]

[54] Zeisel (1976).

[55] Goldstein (1997). [Full text]

[56] Blauvelt (1981).

[57] Patterson (1996).

[58] Patterson (1996).

[59] Patterson (1996).

[60] Zeisel (1976).

[61] Zeisel (1976).

[62] Poyner (1984).

[63] Aryani, Alsabrook, and Garrett (2001). [Full text]

[64] Allsop (1988). [Full text]

[65] Allsop (1988) [Full text]; Cleveland Police Department (1999). [Full text]

[66] Sherman et al. (1998) [Full text]; National Research Council (2004).

[67] Weisel (2002). [Full text]

[68] Casserly, Bass, and Garrett (1980); Goldstein (1997). [Full text]

[69] Houghton (1982). [Full text]

[70] Clarke (1978). [Full text]


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Related POP Projects


The quality and focus of these submissions vary considerably. With the exception of those submissions selected as winners or finalists, these documents are unedited and are reproduced in the condition in which they were submitted. They may nevertheless contain useful information or may report innovative projects.

Hartlepool School Watch Scheme, Cleveland Police Department (Middlesbrough, UK), 1999

Hilltop Special School, Northumbria Police (Northumbria, UK), 2004

Southampton Safer Schools Project, Hampshire Constabulary, 2004

School Exclusion Scheme, Dumfries and Galloway Constabulary (Dumfries, Scotland, UK), 2003

The Turner-Fenton Project [Goldstein Award Winner], Peel Regional Police (ON, CA), 1996

Valley School, Cumbria Constabulary, 2004