Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Positive Signs #1: Unmonitored Belongings

Would you leave this sitting around at school?

School begins for the day. You walk into a classroom carrying a messenger bag. In your bag, you have the usual items you need for a day at work - your laptop, your smartphone, maybe your iPad or Kindle. All in all, you may have around $2,000 worth of equipment in there, not including your wallet, your lunch, and the novel you're reading. Maybe it even contains the tests your students took last week, or their final projects for the semester. Now here's the question: would you feel safe leaving your bag in the classroom? How about the hallway? The staffroom?

You may find this hard to believe, depending on your background, but there really are schools out there where students and staff drop off their bags in class or the teachers lounge and then walk away. They do this without a second thought and without a care in the world - because they know from experience that they can trust that their belongings will be there when they return. They feel as safe leaving their things unmonitored as they would in their own home. As a sub and therefore outside observer, I take this as an extremely positive sign about the overall state of a district.

Why People Steal: Broken Window Theory

The sad truth is that people steal for many reasons, ranging from necessity for survival to revenge. The most common reason for theft in schools is simply because the potential thief believes that they can get away with it, because they won't have to face consequences. This attitude often derives from their observation that other "crimes" within the school, such as littering or tardiness, go unpunished. This is a facet of what is known as the "Broken Window Theory."

The Broken Window theory states that when minor crimes go unanswered, it is an invitation for escalation, and more major crimes appear. It was first put forth by Dr. George Kelling and his colleague James Wilson inthe early 80's, and has since been used as a base for many changes in criminal policy. The most notable case of this was the precipitous drop in crime in New York City after Mayor Rudy Guiliani adopted a "zero tolerance" policy based on this theory. It has more recently become known due to its inclusion in both Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

The original example, used in the article in the Atlantic Monthly in which Kelling and Wilson first explained their theory, was of a neighborhood that was in basically good shape. One night, a few windows are broken in an abandoned building, and because law enforcement is always stretched too thin and the bulding isn't in use, nothing is done. A few days later, more windows are broken. Then squatters begin living in the building. Then other buildings nearby are vandalized in similar ways. Soon the "ok" neighborhood has a distinctly bad reputation. The lack of response to the initial crime acted as a trigger, saying it was acceptable for crimes to be commited in this neighborhood.

The idea behind the Broken Windows Theory is that crime, like many other facets of civilized life, is based on social norms. As human beings, we tend to look to other people and our environment in order to determine the correct behaviour in any given situation. When we cannot rely on other people to show us the norms, we look to the environment. The Wikipedia article on the Broken Window Theory states this succinctly:

An ordered and clean environment sends the signal that this is a place which is monitored, people here conform to the common norms of non-criminal behavior. A disordered environment which is littered, vandalized and not maintained sends the opposite signal: this is a place where people do as they please and where they get away with that, without being detected. As people tend to act the way they think others act, they are more likely to act "disorderly" in the disordered environment.
Putting Theory Into Practice 

So how does this pertain to schools, and what can be done to ensure that we are creating an environment that shows the norms we would like our students and staff to uphold? We begin by monitoring and enforcing the most minor of rules. The easiest to take care of is littering. Very few people are willing to be the first to litter in a clean environment, but many people feel no guilt about tossing trash on the ground when there is already refuse there.

The solution is to keep the school extremely tidy, and to catch would-be litterers in the act. This doesn't mean "cracking down" on students who litter and give unreasonable punishments. It does mean that when a staff member sees a student miss the trash can (often the first item of "litter" that appears), they should call the student on it, and ask them to pick it up. This performs two functions. First, it eliminates the item of trash. Second, calling it to attention may slightly embarass whoever was doing the littering - making it less likely that they will do it again.

Many times, when the adults model this behavior, you will soon hear students telling each other to clean up. This can be far more effective in the end, since socialization with peers is often far more important for kids and teens than pleasing adults. The super clean environment gives the message that people who inhabit this environment care and pay attention, and this norm extends to larger crimes like theft. The message is "If we don't even let a gum wrapper go unnoticed, we certainly won't fail to notice a theft."

Putting this idea into practice isn't difficult, but it does take diligence. It requires that every adult be aware of the plan to maintain a pristine school environment, and be willing to do their part in monitoring students' behavior. There are even ways to reward this behavior and create a positive mental feedback loop. In many schools, there are different halls for different grades. How about a contest to see who can keep things the cleanest? The prizes for winning the contest can be anything. If your school (or PTO) has the funds for it, offer a pizza party to the winning grade (or homeroom/class). If not, offer a "movie day" where the students from the winning team get to go to the auditorium and watch a movie for the last few hours of a Friday afternoon.

What do clean floors have to do with the feeling that you can leave your belongings around? More than you might have thought. Cleaner floors can be the key to maintaining high standards in your school, and they are far easier to arrange than trying to watch every kid every second to make sure they aren't walking away with your stuff. So why does it matter so much that you can leave your bag lying around unmonitored? Because this is a small facet of the larger issue of feeling safe, one of the overriding needs for all people. Knowing that you don't have to watch your bag - or your back - all the time leads to a greater sense of well-being and a greater desire to be in a particular environment. Which is exactly what we would like to see in the attitudes of our students, our staff, and ourselves.

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