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Schools and Crime - The Causes Of School Crime

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Any specific offense stems from both the personality of the offender and his sociocultural milieu. In addition, those sociocultural factors conducive to school crime tend to operate more strongly on disturbed personalities.

Personality causes. The personalities of some children predispose them to rule-violative behavior in the school setting, and especially to aggressive violence. Formerly, such children were expelled or given lengthy suspensions from public schools. This is less likely to happen today, for two reasons. First, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Pub. L. 94–142, 89 Stat. 773, codified in scattered sections of 20 U.S.C.) stipulates that every handicapped child is entitled to a free public education and also that such an education shall be provided in the least restrictive educational setting (Hewett and Watson). Since emotionally disturbed children are considered handicapped, they are entitled to education in the mainstream along with physically handicapped children. Second, the Supreme Court held in Goss v. Lopez (419 U.S. 565 (1975)) that a state enacting a compulsory attendance law is obliged to educate children until the age specified in the law is reached; and that the school's obligations are greater for students in danger of expulsion or suspension for more than ten days than for students subject to less severe disciplinary penalties. The combined impact of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and the Court ruling is that it became difficult to remove violent students younger than sixteen years of age from public schools (Toby, 1983). Such students therefore continue contributing to school crime.

Sociocultural causes. In the 1990s, public schools probably contained a higher proportion of violence-prone emotionally disturbed children than was the case a generation earlier. But contemporary schools also contained a higher proportion of students without diagnosed emotional handicaps who behaved in a manner that would have been unacceptable a generation earlier. Both changes were facilitated by a more liberal cultural climate that placed greater emphasis on children's rights, including the rights of children accused of school crimes (Toby, 1980).

This liberal cultural climate complicates the general problem of social control over potential misbehavior. The larger the school and the more anonymous its students and teachers, the less affected the students are by expressions of disapproval from teachers and even from classmates (Toby, 1998). In addition, schools in modern societies tend to be isolated physically and psychologically from parents and others in the local community whose reactions are important to students. Paradoxically, the professionalization and specialization of education increase the isolation of schools from local communities and thereby increase the probability of student misbehavior.

Furthermore, the trend has been to raise the age to which school attendance is compulsory, on the assumption that all children need a longer period of education in order to participate in an information-oriented society. However, there may be a downside to compulsory attendance. While some kids are unhappy in school for academic reasons, others, such as those who perpetrated violence at Columbine High School, in a middle-class suburb of Denver, experience acute social and personal crises. After Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot to death a teacher, a dozen of their schoolmates, and themselves at school in the spring of 1999, newspapers and TV stations speculated on where responsibility for this tragedy lay. But an obvious question was not raised: Why, if these two students were so miserable at school, did they not drop out and get jobs? A fresh setting just might have given them a new lease on life. Apparently the social stigma of dropping out of high school makes that option unthinkable in middle-class suburbs.

Kids in inner-city high schools are more likely than kids in middle-class suburbs to drop out when schoolwork does not enjoy sufficient parental or peer group support or when individual circumstances interfere with acquiring academic skills. In a sense they are less trapped than middle-class kids in suburban schools. But the high dropout rate of the inner city is deplored and inner-city kids too are under pressure—formal pressure from compulsory attendance laws and informal dropout-prevention arguments from teachers, parents, and the larger society—to remain enrolled whether they find school meaningful or not. Thus, inner-city and suburban schools both contain unwillingly enrolled students. In inner-city secondary schools the main consequence of containing a substantial population of involuntary students who lack a stake in behavioral conformity (Toby, 1957) is an undermining of the educational process. This increases the likelihood of low-level chronic crime and violence in such schools: everyday school violence rather than the explosive violence that sometimes erupts in middle-class schools.

Everyday school violence is fostered by the disorganized educational process of inner-city schools. When students do not perceive school as contributing to their futures, they have little incentive to be respectful to their teachers or to try to please them; they cope in various ways with being compelled to spend a good part of their time in an environment they dislike. Some truant. Some clown around for the amusement of their friends and themselves. Some come to school drunk or high on illegal drugs. Some wander the halls looking for friends to speak with or enemies to fight. Some assault other kids or extort money or valuables from them, partly for profit but also for kicks.

Unlike a prison, where a prisoner participates in the program willy-nilly, education in any meaningful sense depends on a cooperative relationship between teacher and student, not on the occasional presence of an enrolled student in a classroom. Professors Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, Bradford Brown of the University of Wisconsin, and Sandford Dornbusch of Stanford University conducted a massive study of twelve thousand students in nine high schools in Wisconsin and northern California from 1937 to 1990. They described a substantial minority of students in American high schools as being "disengaged" from the educational enterprise, which they defined as follows:

Disengaged students . . . do only as much as it takes to avoid getting into trouble. They do not exert much effort in the classroom, are easily distracted during class, and expend little energy on in-school or out-of-school assignments. They have a jaded, often cavalier attitude toward education and its importance to their future success or personal development. When disengaged students are in school, they are clearly just going through the motions. When they are not in school, school is the last thing on their mind. (Steinberg, p. 15)

Steinberg, Brown, and Dornbusch were primarily interested in academic achievement, not in school violence, but the two are related. When the proportion of disengaged students in a high school is small, the educational process suffers but teachers are able to maintain control in the classrooms, corridors, and lunchrooms. When the proportion of disengaged students in a school is high, the school tips into disorder, and everyday school violence becomes endemic.

A complementary problem in schools with high proportions of disengaged students is disengaged teachers. One consequence of having disengaged students still enrolled in high schools but making no effort to learn anything is that teachers get discouraged. It is difficult to teach a lesson that depends on material taught yesterday or last week when an appreciable number of students are not in class regularly or fail to pay attention when they do come. Eventually these circumstances lead some teachers to "burn out," that is, to despair at the seemingly hopeless task of stuffing ideas into the heads of uninterested students (Dworkin). Others retire early, change to another profession, or take jobs in private or parochial schools at a cut in pay. Thus, teacher turnover rates are high, especially in inner-city schools with substantial proportions of internal dropouts, sometimes called "stayins" (Toby, 1989). New York City, for example, constantly has to hire new teachers (or substitute teachers) to replenish those who abandon their jobs. Of course some public school teachers hold on grimly, taking as many days off as they are entitled to.

But burned-out teachers lose effectiveness at teaching those in their classes amenable to education; this probably partly explains the greater satisfaction of students and their parents with charter schools and with private and parochial schools available through voucher programs than with public schools (Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore; Coleman and Hoffer; Peterson and Hassel). Burned-out teachers are also ineffective at preventing student misbehavior. The public thinks of teachers primarily as educators, not as agents of control. Teachers themselves tend to downplay their disciplinary role. Some object to hall or cafeteria duty on the grounds that they are not policemen. If pressed, however, teachers will agree that control of the class is a prerequisite for education.

Whatever the reasons for the reluctance of individual teachers to admonish misbehaving students, partly out of fear for their own safety, partly out of the desire to be popular, this reluctance implies at least partial abandonment of their role as guardians of school order. When teachers see student misbehavior and turn away to avoid the necessity of a confrontation, adult control over students diminishes at school, thereby encouraging student misbehavior that might otherwise not occur. In short, teachers' reluctance to admonish misbehaving students may be partly the cause of the high level of disorder in some schools as well as its effect. The formal controls that have developed in big-city schools are a partial result of the breakdown of informal social controls over students, such as the expression of teacher approval or disapproval. Informal controls still work quite well in the smaller schools of smaller communities.

Instead of the natural peacekeepers, teachers, preventing disorder and even violence from breaking out, many school systems have resorted to security guards, and some schools also have metal detectors to screen for knives and guns. In the mid 1990s, the District of Columbia school system employed 250 security officers—along with metal detectors in place in 31 schools. A few years later, New York City employed 3,200 security officers, as well as metal detectors. Security guards and metal detectors are useful for innercity schools that need protection against invading predators from surrounding violent neighborhoods and to break up fights that teachers are afraid to tackle. But security programs cannot be the main instrument for preventing student misbehavior in public secondary schools because security guards are not ordinarily in classrooms where teachers are alone with their students. Furthermore, there are never enough security guards to maintain order in hallways or gyms or cafeterias or to prevent assaults or robberies by their mere presence. In January 1992, while Mayor Dinkins was at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, New York, to deliver a speech, accompanied by bodyguards and security guards, two students were fatally shot by an angry fifteen-year-old classmate (Toby, 1992). In short, security guards constitute a second line of defense; they cannot by themselves provide a disciplined environment within which the educational process can proceed effectively.

Involuntary students and a paucity of effective adult guardians help to explain why everyday school violence is so difficult to control in public secondary schools in the United States. But there is a third factor: the official curriculum sponsored by boards of education, principals, and teachers does not monopolize student activity. A large public secondary school is not only an educational institution; for students without strong academic interests it is more like a bazaar, a place where a multiplicity of activities are available for students interested in them: history and geography, yes, but also football, basketball, the student newspaper, chess, romance, sex, extortion from fellow students, and opportunities to make teachers' lives as difficult as possible. Although adults think of the school as an educational opportunity, the education that students take advantage of may be quite different from that envisioned in the formal curriculum. At school students learn lessons that teachers do not teach them.

The term "extracurricular" presupposes that clubs and sports supplement rather than displace the paramount academic pursuits of enrolled students. For most students, especially those who anticipate applying to college, extracurricular interests show that they are well-rounded persons. However, for some students the extracurricular activities take the place of the academic curriculum; the football or basketball player who has no interest in academic subjects is the usual example, but interests in drama or the chorus or the newspaper can also come at the expense of academic achievement. But at least these activities are recognized as legitimate by school authorities. There are, however, other offerings that are by no stretch of the imagination legitimate.

Certainly no school would say that armed robbery is a curriculum offering in its school. But insofar as there is a tradition of predatory extortion by gangs or cliques against weak and fearful schoolmates, some students rehearse the process of preying on their fellows until they become quite skillful at it. In effect, they learn to rob at school. Alcohol and drugs constitute another illegitimate curriculum among the many that compete for student attention. Student interest in drugs and alcohol feeds a counterculture hostile to academic effort, which in turn undermines the authority of teachers and reduces their ability to control student misbehavior.

Schools and Crime - The Effects Of School Crime [next] [back] Schools and Crime - The Perpetrators

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