It happened when Principal Ann C. Leonard was out of town.
On a warm summer night, two teenagers slipped through a roof-top air vent into J.H. House Elementary School in Conyers, Ga., and laid waste to the building. The area hardest hit was the school’s media lab. There, the vandals tore wiring out of the ceiling, smashed fluorescent lights, and pulverized more than 20 computers, 14 overhead projectors, video equipment, and a copy machine, before emptying the contents of a fire extinguisher over the entire mess.
The bill from that one night of destruction: nearly $300,000.
Over the years, school administrators have encountered certain types of vandalism, like damaged toilets and sinks, trashed hallways, broken windows, and graffiti. These days, though, a single case of vandalism can carry an especially hefty price tag— thanks to the increased presence of computers, telecommunications devices, broadcasting and recording equipment, and other expensive technology on school campuses.
“You couldn’t open the door to the media room more than three feet, it was so bad in there,” Ms. Leonard said about the July incident at her school in Georgia’s 13,600-student Rockdale County district. “It was tremendous—the room had to be gutted.”
Other districts have reported similar experiences.
At North Montgomery High School in Crawfordsville, Ind., more than a half-dozen break-ins over six months last year resulted in thousands of dollars in damage.
The worst of the havoc was wreaked this New Year’s Eve, when vandals tore through the building, smashing television sets, computers, copy machines, and the school’s only surveillance equipment at the time, a camera and video-recorder system in the library. The damages that night came to $51,000.
“With graffiti, you’re talking basically about the cost of labor to get rid of it,” said Bob Brower, the superintendent of the 2,000-student North Montgomery district. “Now, we have big-screen televisions and computers that can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000.”
Indeed, the Jan. 31 rampage was by far the district’s worst episode of vandalism, because such items made up much of the property destroyed, Mr. Brower said.
The same was true of a recent series of break-ins at the Saddleback Valley school district in Orange County, Calif., which typically has $20,000 in vandalism damages each school year.
In just one incident in January, the 35,000-student school system suffered $12,000 in losses when vandals smashed their way into three elementary schools and one intermediate school to steal and batter television sets, videocassette machines, and computer equipment, said William N. Manahan, the assistant superintendent for operations.
Vandalism, while failing to garner as much national attention as other school safety issues, has long been a pervasive and expensive problem for the nation’s schools. Nearly 99,000 incidents of school vandalism were reported to police in 1996-97 alone, the only academic year the federal government collected such data. Vandalism occurs most frequently at schools in urban areas, where graffiti tends to be widespread. Nearly 33,000 of the vandalism incidents in the 1996-97 school year were reported by city schools, compared with 23,000 at suburban schools, just under 26,000 in towns, and 17,000 at rural schools.
Constant run-ins with vandalism, or even just a few expensive incidents, often force school districts to beef up building security.
Police investigators recommended after the first break-in at North Montgomery High on Sept. 14 that the district consider rigging the school with surveillance cameras and silent-alarm systems that would direct-dial the police department.
Eight break-ins later, the school is taking that advice to heart. Administrators plan to install motion detectors and a $5,000 alarm system at the high school, as well as schedule a third-shift custodian from 11:30 p.m. to 5 a.m. each night.
“Most people don’t put these systems in until after they’ve been violated,” said Luther Blanton, a patrolman with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in Crawfordsville. “They’re expensive, but they won’t be $50,000 or $60,000. When you add up the damages from all these break-ins, this has probably cost [the district] in excess of $100,000.”
Still, high-tech security can be costly, particularly for smaller school districts.
The 2,500-student rural Ketchikan, Alaska, district has spent $25,000 on the beginnings of a camera-surveillance system for its high school. Maintenance Director Dean Henrick expects to spend another $25,000 before the system is capable of monitoring the entire building.
The expense is worth it, Mr. Henrick said, when weighed against the annual costs of vandalism to district property—$35,000 to $45,000 a year.
“We had in excess of 500 vandalism work orders last calendar year,” he said. “The most common acts are broken windows, [damage to] door hardware, plugged toilets, sinks, and drinking fountains, and damage to student lockers.”
To help prevent vandalism and other nighttime crimes in the Saddleback Valley schools, the district started a few years ago paying maintenance workers to patrol high school buildings and grounds after 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, particularly after events like dances and games. If the crews see anything suspicious, they’re expected to call the police.
But even a comprehensive security system offers no guarantees.
The massive damage at J.H. House Elementary in Georgia occurred despite the fact that the entire school is wired with a silent-alarm system that alerts police to break-ins.
“I don’t know what else we could possibly do,” Principal Leonard said. “Hopefully, [the July incident] will make people more alert.”
For districts that can’t afford to wire entire school buildings with alarm systems, security consultants recommend that administrators at least put motion sensors in areas where vandalism would be most costly: computer labs, band rooms, chemistry labs, media centers, and some administrative offices.
Safety experts also advise school officials to remove excess greenery, increase lighting on and around school property, and build new schools with security in mind.
“Too many nooks and crannies, alcoves, and hiding spots will increase vandalism risks,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. “Unfortunately, I’ve seen a number of brand- new schools built in recent years that are designed for aesthetics and not for crime prevention. They may look pretty, but they’re an open invitation for vandalism and crime.”
John W. McNall, a former police officer and the president of Bowmac Software Inc., a security consulting firm in Rochester, N.Y., agreed. Schools should work with architects familiar with the principles of how to design for crime prevention, he said, because building a safe school is often far less costly than security as an afterthought.
“Good design doesn’t cost any more than bad design, but retrofitting a school for safety— that gets expensive,” Mr. McNall said.
Despite the array of high-tech and architectural solutions for preventing vandalism, some administrators prefer more traditional methods of prevention.
Principal John A. Waters says he has little choice in the matter. His school, Wentzville Holt High in the St. Louis suburb of Wentzville, Mo., is housed in a 25-year-old building ill-suited for a blanket security system because of its numerous entrances.
A recent vandalism spree at the 1,800-student school may force some changes. Armed with a sledgehammer, a ball-peen hammer, and other tools of destruction, a group of teenagers destroyed four soft drink machines, spray-painted walls and floors, and broke into a school store to steal candy and cash. The cost of the vandalism is pegged at $7,000.
The break-in now has school board members and administrators considering surveillance cameras for areas like the cafeteria and gymnasium.
But the experience left Mr. Waters more confident than ever that a strong sense of school community is the best security system, because the vandals were promptly identified by other students at Wentzville High who tipped off teachers.
The principal credits that development to the school’s student-led character education, campus-beautification days, and open lines of communication between teachers and students.
“It’s what you do every day as teachers and administrators that makes a difference,” Mr. Waters said. “The more you remind kids about doing the right thing and praise them for doing the right thing, the better your school climate will be.”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Vandals Target School Technology Items