Preventing School Vandalism

By Del Stover

When Charles Ramsey arrived at Nystrom Elementary School to review the damage caused by vandals the previous night, he was horrified by what he saw. The floor of the California school’s new multipurpose building was a lake of water. Paint and epoxy were splattered over walls and other surfaces. Dozens of windows were shattered.

Damage was estimated at $1 million. “The water was six inches high. The whole building was flooded,” says Ramsey, board president for the West Contra Costa Unified School District. “I was stunned at the level of damage, and that an individual -- or individuals -- would want to do that to a school for young kids.”

It took six months to repair the damage and, to this day, no one has been arrested for this malicious act of vandalism. But, for Ramsey, one of the most difficult challenges for the staff was trying to explain to young children why their school had been attacked.

“It was very hard for them to take,” Ramsey says. “They felt like someone was making a statement to them. We were dealing with kids coming from some of the most difficult of economic situations in our community. Nothing had gone well for them in their life. This vandalism, what message did that send them?”

It wasn’t a positive one, that’s certain. How could it be anything else? School vandalism is a senseless act that security experts say often is motivated by adolescent -- and, occasionally, adult -- anger, frustration, vindictiveness, or just plain stupidity. It can be as innocuous as a student scribbling a bit of graffiti on a restroom wall or as shocking as an all-night rampage that leaves a school unusable for days or weeks and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair.

Thankfully, devastating acts of vandalism are relatively rare, but not as rare as educators might wish. The more common deeds -- graffiti, broken windows, damaged desks, and the like -- are an everyday affliction, a problem found everywhere from affluent suburbs to isolated rural communities to gang-plagued neighborhoods in inner cities. One study tallied nearly 100,000 acts of vandalism in a single year, but researchers suggested the figure was low, saying many lesser incidents went unreported.

Putting an accurate price tag on this damage also proved problematic, although it was clear the cost to public education runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs, staff time, and higher insurance rates.

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