The term “property crime” typically refers to a crime wherein a piece of property such as a purse, a motor vehicle, or a building is intentionally damaged, stolen, or destroyed. For instance, arson, auto theft, burglary, embezzlement, larceny, shoplifting, and vandalism can be considered property crimes. It is important to note, however, that more precise definitions of what constitutes a property crime vary. There are differences of opinion among criminal justice experts, practitioners, and agencies as to whether all criminal action that involves property should be considered and treated as a property crime.
As a case in point, crimes such as the counterfeiting of currency or the forgery of a check involve an economic loss but are not commonly considered to be property crimes. In the annual Crime in the United States reports, which is generated using a research program most commonly known as the Uniform Crime Reports, the only types of property crime analyzed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. The FBI does not treat robbery as a property crime because the crime involves either the threat of force or the use of force against the victim. In addition, the FBI does not provide data on many types of property crimes such as fraud and vandalism in the Crime in the United States reports.
Whatever definition is used, it is clear that property crimes are more common than violent crimes. For instance, every year in the United States, there are more burglaries than murders. The same holds true for school crimes. Although highly violent school crimes such as school shootings receive a great deal of attention from the media and the general public, such crimes are rare. Likewise, even though many students may be more fearful of being violently attacked by a classmate than of having something stolen from their locker, juveniles are actually more likely to have something stolen from them than to be violently attacked while on school property. However, some research suggests that minor forms of school violence such as bullying and non-injurious assault are as common as property crimes. Among the many types of property crime that may occur at school, such as arson, auto theft, property theft, and vandalism, the most common property crimes are theft and vandalism.
Reports of the prevalence of theft vary, but several scholars have found that the theft of personal property such as clothing, electronic devices (e.g., cell phones), money, and school supplies is a common occurrence in schools. The theft of inexpensive items such as batteries, classroom decor, pencils, and pens is so common that most students, teachers, and administrators probably never even report such incidents. The most recent figures available from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice show that 86% of high schools and 69% of middle schools experience some type of theft and that 68% of high schools and 43% of middle schools experience thefts that are serious enough that the incidents are reported to the police.
There are no quality state or national data on vandalism in schools. Nevertheless, one can ask any teacher or school administrator about the vandalism of school property, and they will likely say the problem is routine. For instance, graffiti is a common feature in many schools; it can often be found throughout a school on student desks, library tables, laboratory tables, lockers, walls, and bathroom stalls. Another common problem in many schools is the negligent treatment and intentional destruction of school property such as library books, textbooks, computers, calculators, beakers, and microscopes. In addition, common horseplay such as tossing items around in a classroom can result in the destruction of school property such as clocks, light fixtures, and windows and thus may be considered as a type of vandalism.
Although school property crimes do not receive the same attention from scholars or policymakers as do violent school crimes, property crimes on school grounds are a serious problem. In addition to the considerable costs associated with repairing and replacing damaged or stolen property, the general unsightliness of damaged and destroyed property may contribute to an increase in the level of disorder in a school. As originally suggested by Wilson and Kelling (1982) in their classic article “Broken Windows,” in areas where the destruction and vandalism of property is not immediately fixed, there is often an increase in such crimes. As the vandalism spreads, the level of disorder increases. When people see that no one cares enough about the property to fix the damage (i.e., that people have no stake in the general well-being of their surroundings), the overall quality of life decreases and the rate of crime increases.
It is hard to take pride in one’s community when the streets are littered with abandoned cars, the buildings are covered with graffiti, and the few existing businesses have iron security bars covering their windows. Decent law-abiding citizens who reside in such areas often live in constant fear, while the drug dealers, gang members, pimps, and prostitutes engage in criminal pursuits with impunity. Similarly, when students attend poorly maintained schools that plagued by broken windows and graffiti, they may feel little connection to or concern about their school. It is hard to take pride in one’s school when the lockers are broken, the bathrooms are covered with graffiti, and the textbooks are in tatters. Some research indicates that the weaker a youth’s bond to the school, the greater the likelihood that the youth will engage in criminal and delinquent activity. As the school environment deteriorates, the learning process suffers because there tends to be an increase in student crime, nondelinquent students become concerned about victimization while at school, and students become fearful of even attending school.
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- Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2008). Crime in the United States: 2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
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- Wilson, J. Q., & Kelling, G. L. (1982, March). Broken windows: Police and neighborhood safety. Atlantic Monthly, 249, 29-38.