Preventing vandalism -- more than mowing the grass

When you pass your neighborhood school are you pleased to see that money isn't being wasted on maintenance? Bushes are untrimmed, grass is high, weeds unpulled -- all waiting the fall "get ready for school" time?

Any school district pinching pennies this summer by cutting maintenance and groundskeeping expenses should stop and ask itself if it may be trading off one expense for an even greater one?

The reason -- a high correlation between the appearance of a building and the incidence of vandalism done to it.

So says the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Washington , D.C., (NASSP), the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., as well as a number of building principals queried by the Monitor.

James Keefe, director of research for NASSP, feels there should be little difference in the approach to vandalism both during the summer or the academic year.

"First of all, vandalism is not the No. 1 problem at most schools. Only at 5 to 10 percent of our schools is there is significant problem," he says.

But where it is a consistent problem (more than the isolated incident that plagues all public places in our society, not just schools) some distinguishing characteristics can be observed, he states.

School size is very closely related to vandalism and is the most predominant factor in causing it. "Bigger is definitely not better," says Mr. Keefe.

Summer or winter, big schools with vandalism problems must seek "to create an effect of smallness," he states, otherwise the element of personal accountability is lost. Once you get over 1,200 to 1,500 students the "enemy factor" is introduced. Adults become anonymous and kids are not known. "They feel they can't be held accountable for their actions."

Access to the community, rather than a fortress mentality to protect the building from the community, is of paramount importance. "Fences tend to keep out the good and invite the bad," he adds.

Keeping the building open to the community for longer hours, rather than closing it after the academic day, can limit the incidence of vandalism. Neighborhood groups who feel the school is their "turf" are going to be much more protective of what goes on. Their presence in and around the building also diminishes the amount of time it is vacant, the time when it is most vulnerable.

The CEnter for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins in a study "Disruption in 600 SChools," reports that schools with high rates of vandalism do benefit by some security. A 24-hour workshift for the custodial staff has proved to be one of the most effective and least expensive ways to beef up building supervision.

Some schools go so far as to provide living quarters for a maintenance worker. The employee is not expected to deal directly with an incident when it occurs but to notify authorities immediately.

Johns Hopkins finds much less vandalism occurs in schools with strong leadership, especially if the principal is also perceived as humane and friendly by the community as well as the students.

Expanded counseling services as well as local media coverage of a vandalism problem must go hand in hand with direct prevention programs, notes the Johns Hopkin's report.

Lou Gappmayer, principal of Bozeman Senior High in Bozeman, Mont., says, "Vandalism is contagious. You can get by with less expense by dealing with the physical problem immediately. As soon as it occurs I either replace it or remove it."

But he quesitons the new "vandal proof" buildings that are all brick and tile and have a minimum number of windows.

The physical environmental of a school is going to affect the attitudes of the people in it. "An aesthetically pleasant building, one with artwork by the students, one with murals, has a much better chance of being respected by students and the community," says Mr. Gappmayer.

Many school officials think it would be best if architects consulted with building principals, "the people who are going to have to live with the building for the next 20 to 30 years," before they build a new school.

Eliminating building design problems that prompt vandalism before the brick and mortar stage -- a low roof, a dark hallway, an abundance of plate glass by the lucnh line, -- is much better than having to react to them for the life of the building.

If a structural problem does exist and vandalism is a recurring problem in a specific area, Mr. Gappmayer recommends doing whatever is possible to make the area attractive. Brighten up a dark spot, landscape a hidden corner, assign teachers to "naturally" patrol a high traffic area that has a history of problems.

One thing he always does in the summer is to have a crew of students work on the year- end scrubbing a building receives and help with the extra landscaping the vacation season calls for. Besides the fact of having students physically in the building to keep an eye on it, by working on it they therefore have a stake in its appearance.

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