Behavioral policy violations can disrupt social organization, increase school crime

The study, published in the Annals of Epidemiology online, found that increased school behavioral policy-violation trends were associated with increased school-crime trends.

“This was a community-level evaluation of how trends in behavioral policy violation affect trends in crime,” explained Marizen Ramirez, Ph.D., assistant professor of occupational and environmental health and lead author of the study. “We believe rampant rule-breaking reflects a breakdown of the school’s social organizational structure, which in turn, decreases safety and creates opportunity for crime.”

Researchers analyzed data from a large South Los Angeles school district of about 19,400 students in high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. The school’s security division documents violations of school behavioral policies for dress codes, alcohol and drug possession or use, and truancy — or unexcused absences. Weekly trends in behavioral policy violations per 1,000 students were compared with trends in school crime, including weapons on campus, assault, battery, nonphysical confrontations, and property damage.

At all school levels, increased policy violations were associated with increased school crime. Most notably, a one-unit increase in weekly policy violations at middle schools was related to a three-fold increase in crime. In elementary schools, a one-unit increase in policy violations was related to doubled crime rate, and in high school, it was 1.5 times greater.

“This really speaks to the need for early intervention,” Ramirez said. “The strong association between policy violations and crime found in the middle schools dissipates by the time students are in high school, which highlights the importance of a strong social control in young adolescent children when rule-following behaviors are being established.”

When researchers compared specific policy violations across all schools, the strongest association was found between substance-use violations and crime. A one-unit increase in weekly substance-use violation trends in middle and high schools led to a 300 percent increase in crime rates and a 200 percent increase in elementary schools. An increase in weekly truancy rates was associated with a six-fold increase in the crime rate at middle schools but a modest 10 percent increase in the high school and no apparent association in elementary school. Associations between high school dress code and crime were modest.

“Schools have been implementing behavioral policies for decades. This research highlights how policy can impact violence and social cohesion in a community and where we can make significant strides in the future,” Ramirez said.

Funding for this research was provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UI Injury Prevention Research Center.

In addition to Ramirez, the research team included: Joseph Cavanaugh, Ph.D., professor of biostatistics; Gang Cheng, M.S., biostatistics Ph.D. student; Corinne Peek-Asa, Ph.D., professor of occupational and environmental health; and Rizaldy Ferrer, Ph.D., research associate at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University.

STORY SOURCE: The University of Iowa College of Public Health Office of Communications and External Relations, 4257 Westlawn, Iowa City, Iowa 52242

MEDIA CONTACT: Hannah Fletcher, 319-384-4277, [email protected]

PHOTOS/CAPTIONS: Low-res photos of Marizen Ramirez can be found at:[email protected]. For a high-resolution photo, please contact Hannah Fletcher at 319-384-4277.