Nearly a year ago, a school shooting occurred at Chardon High School. Recently, a shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary school took the lives of 26 people, 20 of these victims just first graders. This will not be an essay about the tragedy of such inexplicable acts nor will this column enter into a debate about gun control. American culture and all of its socializing agents, good, bad or indifferent, will likewise not be discussed. Instead, as was done in a March 2012 column on the Chardon High School shooting, the examination today will be on what changes will be institutionalized in an attempt to reduce the opportunity for a motivated offender to wreak havoc on the lives, hearts and minds of a community.
As someone who teaches a course in “Criminology”, a theory that is explored in class is the “Routine Activities Theory”. The idea is simple: for a crime to occur, three things must be present. There must be a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of capable guardians. Alter one of these components, and crime (theoretically) would not occur. Based on a report that came out today, the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district is attempting to alter one of these components.
In Routine Activities Theory, a “motivated offender” is someone who is able and willing to break the law. This particular component is perhaps the most difficult to alter as the reasons for people committing crime vary; everything from economic reasons to psychological reasons to reasons that may never be understood. The “suitable target” is a person or property that is desired by the motivated offender. What makes a target more or less “suitable” would include the level of vulnerability of the targeted person or item. The more vulnerable, desirable and accessible a target is, the greater the chance of a motivated offender pursuing that target. Lastly, the “absence of capable guardian” represents those people or items that protect a suitable target, whether those guardians are security officers, deadbolt locks or any person who can intervene on behalf of a target.
The Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district has outlined a new procedure regarding visitors at their schools. Specifically, as outlined in an article on www.cleveland.com by Sun Newspaper reporter, Ed Wittenberg, the schools will be locking exterior doors at 9:00a.m. (8:45 a.m. for Cleveland Heights High School) which will require any visitor arriving after that time to call the school’s office for entry. The visitor will need to go directly to the office and retrieve a visitor’s pass. Additionally, should a person enter the school that is not recognized by a staff member, they will be questioned about their presence.
Theoretically speaking, the school district is increasing, or making more available, their “capable guardians”. By locking the exterior doors, they are making it harder for someone who is motivated to offend to access their target. Additionally, by questioning visitors who are not known to staff and by having the visitor identify themselves at the office, a tactic is being employed to further deter a potential offender. Namely, the tactic is that of recognition by others. As anyone who has ever worked in retail knows, by acknowledging customers as they enter a store, the likelihood of shoplifting is decreased.
The obvious challenge, however, is that someone who is truly motivated to offend may not be deterred. Some potential offenders are deterrable; others are not and they are deemed to be “incorrigible”. Sadly, as was seen in the Sandy Hook tragedy, a locked door can be subverted by breaking a window. While most potential offenders would be deterred and perhaps select a different (and "easier") target, one who is incorrigible and truly motivated would not be deterred. They must be stopped.
Hence, the axiom, “it all works in theory”.