James Q. Wilson, in his 1982 paper “Broken Windows,” theorized that crime flourishes in disorderly environments plagued by broken windows and graffiti because criminals get the message no one cares what happens. He suggested that if attention were given to addressing minor law violations, incidents of violence would decline.
Soon after becoming a chief of campus police, I noticed that one of the schools in the district had a disproportionate level of violence. This difference did not appear to be the result of any influences created within the community.
A closer examination revealed that minor transgressions at the school usually were overlooked. For example, although districtwide policies prohibited students from wandering the halls without a pass, wearing unapproved head cover or using profanity, the school did very little to address those behaviors. Officials argued they were too busy handling serious infractions.
Applying the theory espoused by Wilson, I argued that allowing minor events to go unaddressed contributed to the high number of serious infractions. For example, several bomb-threat calls originated from students hanging out in the parking lot instead of attending classes. They decided to use a cell phone (which they were not authorized to possess in school) and make a prank call.
On other occasions, fights between students resulted from an earlier exchange of insults and profanity uttered in the presence of other students and staff members.
I felt that if the students had been in their assigned classes, or were disciplined for bringing cell phones to school, the bomb threats might never have been called in. In the same way, if the school had dealt with the verbal exchanges between students, they might not have escalated to physical altercations.
Another consideration is the message that students receive when staff members observe conduct violations, but do nothing. When that happens, students might think that no one cares what they do, which could contribute to more serious incidents.
At the urging of district administrators, officials began addressing minor transgressions at this school. The results became apparent almost instantly. By the time the following school year concluded, incidents of violence experienced at this school were reduced and were in line with the levels at other schools in the district.
If school officials are serious about reducing incidents of violence on their campuses, they must develop student codes of conduct to address the behaviors they wish to control. They must make the code of conduct meaningful by consistently and fairly enforcing it. School officials should demonstrate to students that maintaining a safe and secure environment is a goal they strongly support.
Dunn is a career police officer who worked several years as police chief for a large high school district. He has conducted site assessments and training programs with dozens of school districts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.