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4H Wildlife Stewards
Bringing Science and Nature Together...one school at a time.


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 setting.

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 vandalized equipment.

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 sites.


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!

Landscape Design

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" is important.


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.

Community Involvement

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.


4-H Wildlife Stewards, Sunnyside Environmental School, 3421 SE Salmon 1209,
Portland, OR 97214 - 503-916-6074, e-mail: wildifestewards@oregonstate.edu
Copyright 2002-2007. All Rights Reserved.