The start of the school year brings unique challenges to students, parents, and school administrators, as well as law enforcement. Once a symbol of discipline and order, many of today's schools are overcrowded, poorly maintained, and serve as magnets for criminal activity. One particular crime that presents special challenges for law enforcement is school vandalism, which can take a variety of forms from broken windows to graffiti to the total destruction of property.

While such acts are rarely reported in the media, one in three schools has reported acts of vandalism each year. In 1990 more than $600 million in damage to school property was caused by vandals. By understanding the nuances of vandalistic acts, patrol officers can develop specialized responses to help minimize future attacks.

Easy Target

Schools present a unique target for vandals. They are easily accessible and everyone knows when schools are busy and when they are empty. Unfortunately, vandalism is often under reported because school officials may view the crimes as inconsequential, they may prefer to handle the repairs in house, or they may fear that reports of vandalism reflect negatively on their management skills.

If you and your police department aim to reduce school vandalism, you must first get a clear picture of the offense and help to ensure that all vandalism incidents are properly reported. To facilitate easy reporting, develop a form that school administrators can fill out without police assistance or allow tipsters to report crimes of vandalism over the phone. If all incidents are not being reported, find out why.

Consider the Motives

Once you have a clear picture of the prevalence of these crimes in your area, develop theories as to why the vandalism occurs. It may be helpful to recognize that most acts of vandalism provide no financial gain for the actor; they are merely vehicles for the actor to gain status in the eyes of his or her peers.

In an effort to gain social status without causing real financial damage, an actor may spray hate-motivated or gang-related graffiti on school grounds. This act gets the actor's name around school. In contrast, secretly dropping cherry bombs into toilets or vandalizing laboratories causes a great deal of financial damage, but doesn't do much for the reputation of the clandestine actor. Establishing the motive of the actor will go a long way toward developing a criminal profile.

Next, try to develop a profile of the events and the perpetrators. Spontaneous events such as throwing rocks or bottles through windows, seem relatively random. Other acts, like drawing elaborate, multi-colored gang graffiti high off the ground, indicate some level of planning. How the incidents are grouped—many small incidents with no apparent pattern or a few large incidents that coincide with sporting events or concerts—can provide valuable clues.

Obtain additional information by interviewing non-offending students or by debriefing offenders who have been apprehended. Find out the general age of the perpetrators, level of criminal sophistication, proximity to the crime scene, modes of transportation, and the number of offenders involved.

Prior to initiating proactive enforcement steps, gauge the community's reaction to the vandalism. Is it viewed as a serious, expensive offense or a harmless act that everyone in the town engaged in when they were in high school? How does the media portray the vandals: as gang members marking their territory or as harmless kids committing juvenile pranks? A police response that is out of sync with the community's feelings could cause more problems than it solves.

Tackling the Problem

As school and police officials begin to tackle the problem of school vandalism, the first step will be to conduct a security walk through the campus. Sprawling campuses that cover many acres are more susceptible to vandalism than smaller facilities. Burned out lights and large bushes can create hiding spots that give vandals a sense of secrecy. Look out for any trees that may lend easy access to the roof. Also pay special attention to large, smooth walls, especially those painted a light color. Such walls can be painted with a mixture of colors (camouflage print) that doesn't allow graffiti to stand out, making them much less tempting to vandals.

If the vandalism problem continues to escalate, look into organizing a task force that invites a free exchange of ideas from students, teachers, administrators, custodians, and members of the community. Make every effort to include marginalized students whose voices may not be heard in an organized setting. Input from these varied sources will lead to a vigorous discourse, as well as new ideas and responses.

If graffiti is the main problem, schools might choose to erect a "graffiti board," a wall where non-offensive graffiti is permitted. This means of expression allows students to have an outlet for their creativity while preventing widespread damage to school grounds.

Finally, work with the courts to develop creative sentences for those who are caught vandalizing schools. Using a restorative justice model, you can encourage judges to sentence offenders to cleaning the school's hallways or scrubbing graffiti from the walls instead of giving them time in juvie. This way, the offenders will serve a punishment that returns the school to its prior condition.

School vandalism plagues almost every community in the country. Police want to develop a measured response that reflects the community's view of the offense and creates an environment wherein the crimes will ultimately be eliminated. By working with students, faculty, and members of the community, your agency can develop creative and successful responses to school vandalism.

Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. He can be contacted through