Destruction of property is an issue that college campuses continually face. As the United States continues to heal from the wave of school violence that characterized the late 1990s and early 2000s, college campuses have worked to increase the public’s confidence in the ability of schools to protect students. While property destruction is not as violent as other types of crimes, it still takes a toll on schools’ budgets and on student and staff morale, lessening the control that campus safety officials have over student actions. An examination of factors that may contribute to the occurrence of college property crimes and the transitional nature of college students’ lives, an understanding of the theoretical perspectives used to understand crime, and ways those theories can be applied to college property crime will better equip college students and staff to reach students who commit property crimes and prevent these crimes from happening in the first place.
Substance abuse, peer group influence, and economic background are key factors that influence students’ decisions to destroy campus property, regardless of individual demographic differences. Substance abuse is a well-known problem for campus law enforcement. The abuse of drugs and alcohol leads to a whole host of problems, from car accidents and battery to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy. Research has shown that students who engage in regular drinking, taking part in the campus party scene, are significantly more likely to be somehow involved in campus crimes, including crimes against property. It follows logically that while a student is under the influence, with judgment impaired, property destruction may not seem as serious or risky as it would to a student with a sober mindset.
Another external contributing factor to campus property destruction is the student’s peer group. A study examining the social influences on criminals cited three specific reasons a person may go along with a group’s decisions to commit a crime: “fear of ridicule, status striving, and the diffusion of responsibility within a group” (Hartley, 2011, p. 29). Just as alcohol and drugs can change a student’s general view of crime, so peer pressure can temporarily affect a student’s judgment. A student’s views on the ethics of property destruction while in a psychologically comfortable and secure mindset may change when that same student is scared of rejection. In addition to peer pressure, mere peer presence has an impact. One study addressing self-control and peer influence found that increased time spent with peers created a strong statistical effect that provides evidence of the importance of looking beyond the issues of individual self-control to other external contributing factors–in this case, the peer group. Specifically, destroying property with a group may lower the feeling of personal responsibility an individual student might have.
While substance abuse and peer group are both immediate contributing factors to a student deciding to take part in the commission of a property crime, socioeconomic background may be an underlying factor. A study analyzing the link between poverty and property crime exposure reported that people living in high-crime neighborhoods were five times more likely to witness a property crime being committed than people who do not live in high-crime neighborhoods. Albert Bandura’s work demonstrates the strength of modeling–a psychological concept that asserts watching someone do something increases the chance the person watching will then do the same thing, much as children mimic their parents. Continuing along these lines, students who grow up seeing property crimes being committed will be more likely to commit such crimes themselves one day.
The previously described factors are compounded by the transitional nature of being a college student. At a time when their identities are changing, and being formed through various experiences and relationships, students’ morals and values are not as absolute as they may have been before these individuals started college and, in many cases, moved out and away from home. A study examining the behavioral changes students experience during the transition from high school to college found that even when controlling for certain demographic characteristics, students experienced similar behavioral changes. Recent research done on college students has found that this transition often brings about heavier episodic drinking, greater marijuana use, more sexual partners, and higher morbidity and mortality rates than found among peers who are the same age but not enrolled in college classes. As students leave their childhood homes, towns, and (in some cases) friends, they are forced to begin making decisions concerning how they spend time that parents or other guardians may have formerly made. This increased independence is only one of the many psychological processes associated with the major transition of moving out and into an institution of higher education.
Social scientists have observed and analyzed these factors contributing to campus property crime through many different theoretical lenses. For example, Travis Hirschi’s social control theory holds that people are inherently deviant. An inner connection to society keeps them from committing crimes and weakening that bond. Thus it can be assumed that if a person commits a property crime on a college campus, that individual’s bond to society has been somehow weakened. In line with social control theory, the best way to prevent college property crimes would be to strengthen students’ ties to the new social environment they find themselves in at the start of their first semester. Strong resident hall programming, mentoring programs, and other social events can help students feel connected to the school and lessen their likelihood of hurting their society by destroying campus property or committing other types of crime.
Another theory commonly applied to the study of crime is Ronald Akers’ social learning theory. Akers maintains that people are not inherently deviant or compliant, but rather neutral. He suggests that each person is as likely as the next to be deviant and commit a crime, as determined by that individual’s external environment. Rejecting the idea that connectedness to society is the only way to fight an internal tendency to be deviant, Akers points to the various influences on a person as he or she develops into an adult in predicting who will more likely to be deviant and commit a crime. Research analyzing social learning theory links this perspective with Bandura’s aforementioned modeling theory, as both point to outside influences as key in a child’s future actions. While Akers’ theory still places power in the hands of those influencing the developing student, it does not claim that individuals naturally lean toward deviance. Embracing this viewpoint would encourage college staff to pay attention to students’ backgrounds. Akers would encourage staff to mentor students, learning which gaps have been left by their upbringing and working to fill those gaps with healthier activities than property crime and other forms of deviance.
Following Akers’ reasoning, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory encourages an analysis of the various influences on a person. Bronfenbrenner divides these influences into five systems, each growing in its distance from the individual: the microsystem (closest to the person), the mesosystem, the exosys-tem, the macrosystem, and the chronosystem (furthest from the person). This approach meshes well with social learning theory, as both perspectives examine what has and is influencing the person in question. By mapping out exactly which influences are acting on the student, it becomes clear which are negative and need to be distanced more from the student, and which are positive and could potentially unite to reach the student and help with the issues he or she is dealing with. For example, a deviant peer group who encourages the student to drink irresponsibly and write graffiti on school buildings can be distanced, whereas friends and resident assistants living in the residence hall who enjoy other legal, healthy activities can be sought out and encouraged to reach out to the student.
Addressing college property crime is a task that requires a deeper understanding of the issues college students are dealing with, the importance of the competing influences on students, and the various theories and the solutions they offer in reducing and eliminating campus property crimes. Students who commit property crimes are expressing themselves in an unhealthy and illegal way for a reason. They have come from a specific home, grown up within a specific culture, and found themselves within a specific peer group at the college campus. A crisis precipitated by a property crime presents college staff with an opportunity to use the contact to intervene and prevent future crimes. College staffs have a difficult task in raising the public’s confidence in their ability to maintain safe campuses, as free as possible of all types of crime. The future holds great potential for reaching deviant students at a key point in their lives, thereby helping improve society as whole in doing so.
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