VANDALISM AND YOUR HABITAT SITE
By Beth Stout
Educational Outreach Coordinator
National Wildlife Federation, Portland, OR
On a cool summer day this
year, I went on a "ride along" with Portland School Police
Officer Jerry Cioeta. Jerry was kind enough to join me on a visit to
several certified Schoolyard Habitats® sites in the Portland School
District, where we walked and talked about school vandalism in general
and about techniques for preventing vandalism to habitat sites, in particular.
I was prompted to arrange
the ride-along after hearing from Sharon Potter, the Principal at Schmitz
Park Elementary School in Seattle, Washington. Schmitz Park, National
Wildlife Federation * (NWF) Schoolyard Habitats site No. 776 had just
been vandalized and Sharon was trying to cope with the aftermath of
a crime that had not only destroyed plants and habitat structures, but
had resulted in the deaths of several birds - the very creatures the
habitat was created to protect.
Just a couple of months previously,
I presented National Wildlife Federation's Certificate of Accomplishment
at a student assembly at Highly Elementary School in Gresham, Oregon.
A week or so before the assembly, teacher Mary MacAuley called to tell
me their habitat area had been vandalized - shrubs cut down, plants
pulled up and the pond literally pulled out of the ground by the liner.
Both schools are determined
to rebuild and recreate their schoolyard habitat sites, but vandalism
and the fear of vandalism are a major concern to schools contemplating
the creation, and planning for the sustainability of schoolyard habitat
sites. However, don't let the negligible threat of vandalism prevent
you from creating a Schoolyard Habitats site at a school in your area.
Instances of vandalism to these outdoor learning areas are few and,
when designed properly, the threat of vandalism can be kept to a minimum
while students, teachers and community members enjoy and hands-on, outdoor
learning opportunity that cannot be duplicated in the indoor classroom
Vandalism is not limited
to schoolyards or habitat sites. Vandalism, the wilful destruction or
defacement of public or private property, costs schools, homeowners,
businesses, youth, and others more than $15 billion a year. And, according
to the National Crime Prevention Council, schools pay millions of dollars
every year to clean up graffiti, repair building damage, and replace
Most vandals are young and
the places they vandalize, including schools, are often in the neighborhoods
where they live. In 1996, the typical juvenile arrested for vandalism
was a 16-year old male. That year, more than 141,000 people under the
age of 18 were arrested for vandalism - almost half of the total number
of vandalism arrests.
While there is no sure-fire
way to prevent vandalism, there are ways to discourage acts of vandalism
at your site. The National Crime Prevention Council's "Crime Prevention
Through Environmental Design" program focuses on four key strategies
- all of which apply toward discouraging vandalism at Schoolyard Habitats
People protect territory
they feel is their own and have a certain respect for the territory
of others. Fences, pavement treatments, are, signs, good maintenance,
and landscaping are some physical ways to express ownership. Identifying
intruders is much easier in a well-defined space.
Signs are everywhere - a
sign is a way to let people know something. A sing can be a piece of
paper, plastic, wood or other material that has words and/or pictures
on it. What should a schoolyard habitat sign tell people? It should
let everyone know that this place is SPECIAL and why. Just by posting
interpretive and other signs and maintaining them, e.g., cleaning off
graffiti immediately, you are telling people that this place is used
frequently and that it is monitored and cared for. Incorporate sign
design and construction into your habitat project curriculum - it includes
subject areas like mathematics, art, and language arts. Schools that
certify a habitat area with National Wildlife Federation are eligible
to receive a 19" x 13" aluminum sign designating the school
as a certified Schoolyard Habitats site.
While schoolyard habitat
sites do lessen the need for traditional maintenance, it is still important
to keep your habitat area looking "presentable" to the public.
Watering, weeding, and general upkeep - especially over the summer -
give the impression that you habitat site is being used and enjoyed
and that it is not an overgrown weed patch and not an easy target for
vandals to attack because no on is watching. Maintaining the habitat
site is the responsibility of students, teachers, and volunteers. This
is a good way to involve neighbors who can lend a hand and keep your
summer contact person informed about how the site looks and who is using
it. To gain the support of neighbors, it is especially important that
your site be attractive - and not an attractive nuisance!
Schoolyard habitat sites
can be planned for interior courtyards, fenced-in areas of the schoolyard,
or open areas easily accessible to everyone. Where you plan and plant
your site depends on the space available - and on the steps you can
take to discourage vandalism. If your neighborhood has on ongoing vandalism
problem, consider and interior courtyard with limited accessibility
for your habitat project. If your school has the funds, fencing might
be appropriate for a more open site. Try developing your site slowly.
First, plant a small area and over a period of time add plants, structures
like bird feeders, a water feature, etc. Give everyone a chance to watch
your habitat site grow. Work with your students to design your site
to be "user friendly" so that there is something for everyone
to do when they visit, whether it's a classroom studying insects, a
class of visiting students and their teacher who are looking for ideas
for their own site, or neighborhood residents who want to sit on a bench
and watch the birds. To give as many people as possible a feeling of
ownership, hold an open house for the whole school and invite everyone
to bring something for the habitat - whether it's a plant for the butterfly
garden, a stone for the path or pond, or a worm for the soil doesn't
matter, as long as it connects everyone to the site.
Criminals don't want to be
seen. Placing physical features, activities, and people in ways that
maximize the ability to see what's going on discourages crime. Barriers,
such as bushes, sheds, or shadows, make it difficult to observe activity.
Landscaping and lighting can be planned to promote natural surveillance
from inside a building and from the outside by neighbors or people passing
by. Maximizing the natural surveillance capability of such "gatekeepers"
Involving students in the
design of habitat sites is one of the best ways to give them a feeling
of ownership - and discourage vandalism. When you and your students
are mapping and inventorying the existing site, include human uses of
the area. For example, do students currently beat a path across the
lawn or through the underbrush; do vandals graffiti the walls; is the
area well-lit at night; is it an area that will lend itself to use by
the community at large; can neighbors see what's happening at the site?
Take the answers to these questions into consideration as you proceed.
If walls have history of graffiti, students can research appropriate
vines or shrubs to plant in front of them; if the area is not well-lit,
include funds for lighting in your budget; if students have already
cut a path through the area, include that path in your site design;
and if your site is not in full view of the neighbors consider moving
it so it will be.
All school visitors must
stop at the office before going further inside the school. The office
staff are gatekeepers and keep track of everyone who visits. School
neighbors can be gatekeepers just be keeping an eye out over the habitat
site. When visitors are aware that they are being monitored - even informally
- it helps to encourage appropriate behavior and discourage inappropriate
behavior. Other ways of "gate keeping" can include keeping
a visitor's book at the site; encouraging active use of the site by
as many community groups and classes as possible, including classes
from other schools' and, in the summer, encouraging volunteers to maintain
a very visible presence by scheduling their activities on various days
and at various times of the day, including early morning and evening
which are the best times for watering, anyway.
Encouraging legitimate activity
in public spaces helps discourage crime. Any activity that gets people
out and working together helps prevent crime.
In addition to providing
gatekeepers, encouraging lots of activity at your habitat site increases
community involvement with your project - and could lead to unexpected
support like donations of materials or volunteer help! The more people
who are involved with, and care about, your site the more eyes and ears
you will have in the community. Some ideas: hold a community open house;
conduct a "bug" count and invite classes from neighboring
schools; offer regularly scheduled habitat tours and advertise them
in the local paper; hold celebrations in the habitat, including Arbor
Day, INternational Migratory Bird Day, birthdays and special school
celebrations; develop a mentoring component for your habitat project
and reach out to younger students with special activities; hold regular
"clean-up" days to keep up with maintenance and demonstrate
that the site is important - for both wildlife and people! Invite high-school
students who need to perform service-learning or community service projects.
Properly located entrances,
exits, fencing, landscaping, and lighting can direct booth foot and
automobile traffic in ways that discourage crime. Access control can
be as simple as a neighbor on the front porch.
School Rules and
School District Policy
We've already covered things
like landscape design, fencing, lighting, and the importance of involving
neighbors. Another way to maintain access control is to declare the
importance of the habitat site to the life of the school by including
specific references to it in your school code of conduct and to encourage
your school district to include habitat sites at all schools in their
policy manuals under "Vandalism" or "Care of School Property
by Students". Make sure that everyone understands that vandalism
is a crime, that crimes are reported to the police, criminals are prosecuted,
and restitution is demanded.
Despite our best efforts,
vandalism is a widespread crime and it can happen to your habitat site.
So what do you do if you've been hit?
Contact the appropriate authorities.
Vandalism is a crime and must be reported to the police. Follow your
school's procedures for reporting crime. Ask the police to keep an eye
on your site as they patrol.
Clean up immediately! Show
the vandals that you will not tolerate their actions and that you will
pain over graffiti, replant shrubs, clean up signs, and replace structures
like bird baths or feeders.
Counsel and continue to educate
your students. It can be depressing, and even devastating, to be the
victim of a crime. Often schools provide grief counseling for students
mourning the loss of a classmate or recovering from the tragedy of school
violence. Offer your students time and space to express their emotions
and concerns about destruction and defacement of a place they worked
so hard to create. Students who have been active in the habitat project
can visit other classes and schools to talk about what happened and
how to prevent it from happening again. contact your neighbors. Let
them know what has happened and ask if they saw anything you can relay
to the police. Ask them to keep a closer watch on the habitat site and
make sure they have the phone number of the right person to call if
they have information.
Rethink the design and use
of your site. Look at the four strategies above and incorporate them
into the redesign of your site. Always involve as many students as possible
in the design process - their ideas for deterring vandals and involving
friends and neighbors are valid.
Remember why your planted
the habitat site in the first place. Schoolyard habitat sites are outdoor
learning areas for students, teachers and members of the community.
They provide homes for wildlife; facilitate the study of nature and
other subjects; encourage parent involvement; reduce the need for field
trips and maximize teaching time; and they are beautiful to look at
and enjoyable to be in. Vandalism does happen - it's up to us to take
steps so that it happens less often and that its impact is less severe.
Creating a habitat site on
school grounds is one of the most positive contributions you can make
to the life of your school and the surrounding community. Creating a
place for wildlife right outside the schoolroom door brings with it
all the rewards and responsibilities of stewardship. Vandalism to schoolyard
habitat sites is not common, so don't let the fear of crime deter you
- let the joy of creation guide you.