School Social Organization, Discipline Management, And Crime Research Paper

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School violence, drug use, vandalism, gang activity, bullying, and theft are costly and interfere with academic achievement. Student misbehavior interferes with teaching and learning and is one of the primary sources of teacher turnover in our nation’s schools. Gallup polls from the past 20 years show that the percentage of parents who report being concerned about the physical safety of their children while at school has ranged from 15 % to 55 %, with the highest percentages registering just after the infamous school shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Reducing crime rates has become an increasingly high priority for America’s schools.

There has also been an important trend in the official response to school crime. The response has become increasingly formal over the last 20 years, with greater recourse to arrest and the juvenile courts rather than school-based discipline. To some extent, this trend has been furthered by federal law that has imposed zero-tolerance rules for some offenses and has subsidized the hiring of uniformed officers to police the schools. The shift has been from administrative discretion to mandatory penalties and from in-school discipline to increasing use of suspension or arrest. At the same time, there has been a considerable investment in the use of surveillance cameras and metal detectors.

While the increasing formality in school response to crime has coincided with the declining crime rates, there is no clear indication of whether the new approach gets any of the credit. Indeed, the evaluation literature that we review here has very little to say about the likely effects of these changes. As so often happens, there appears to be a disconnect between policy and research.

There are alternatives to the get-tough approach with its reliance on deterrence and exclusion. We know that some schools do a much better job than others in controlling the behavior of their students. Characteristic of successful schools in this respect is that they are close-knit communities where rules of acceptable behavior are clearly communicated and consistently (if not harshly) enforced. In addition to good management practices, there is much that can be done in the classroom that has demonstrated effectiveness in improving behavior.

In this research paper, we summarize evidence showing that how the school is organized and managed (in general) influences problem behavior and school safety. We then discuss two specific aspects of school organizational climate – discipline management and school culture, respectively – and how they can be manipulated to reduce crime and related problem behaviors. We conclude with recommendations to guide future evaluation research on school-based interventions. Throughout the paper, our focus is on how schools can and do influence the behavior of students while they are enrolled.

Does School Organization Matter?

How the school is organized and managed influences problem behavior and school safety. In an early national study of school disorder, Gottfredson and Gottfredson (1985) showed that even after controlling for input characteristics of students and communities in which schools were located, characteristics of schools accounted for an additional 12 % (junior high) and 18 % (senior high) of variance in teacher victimization rates. More recent national studies have replicated these findings and extended them to show that school characteristics account for a substantial amount of variance not only in teacher victimization but also in student reports of victimization and delinquency (Gottfredson et al. 2005).

Which aspects of the way schools are organized and managed influence crime and disorder? Cook et al. (2010) discuss school system decisions that influence the demographic composition of schools and the number and types of other students to whom a child is exposed. Schools and school districts have a good deal of control over the makeup of the student body. Schools can be based on neighborhood residential patterns or integrated across race and class. The grade span for elementary and middle schools can be adjusted. Truancy and dropout prevention programs can be pursued with more or less vigor, and troublesome students reassigned. Whether failing students are retained in grade or given a social promotion influences the extent of age homogeneity within classrooms. Students who are enrolled in the school can be tracked on the basis of academic potential or mixed together. These decisions influence the characteristics of other students to whom youths will be exposed. Importantly, these decisions determine the pool of youths from which highly influential peers will be selected as well as the dominant peer culture in the school.

School and school district decisions about curricular content and teaching methods are also important. These decisions determine student success in school and decisions to persist in school. As summarized in the Wilson entry elsewhere in this section, the use of specialized prevention curricula directly influences the level of problem behavior. Below, we discuss two additional characteristics of schools that influence crime and disorder: (1) policies and procedures governing discipline management that directly affect the extent to which formal sanctions are applied and the effectiveness of these sanctions and (2) aspects of the school social organization that affect the nature of interactions among teachers and students (and hence the application of social controls) and the school culture.

Discipline Management

Cook et al. (2010) summarize findings from 12 studies that looked at the association of discipline management practices with school crime. The results show remarkable consistency: when schools monitor students and control access to the campus, and when students perceive that school rules are fair and consistently enforced, schools experience lower levels of problem behavior. Inclusion of students in establishing school rules and policies for dealing with problem behaviors has also been found to be related to lower levels of problem behavior, most likely because students are apt to internalize school rules if they have helped to shape them. On the other hand, severity of sanctions is not related to a reduction in problem behaviors. These findings conform to the main findings from deterrence research that the certainty of punishment has greater deterrent effect than the severity of punishment.

Of course, there has been considerable policy attention to school disciplinary practices, especially in response to the spate of school shootings experienced in the 1980s and 1990s. Most schools employ security and surveillance strategies aimed at keeping intruders out and preventing weapons from coming into the schools. Common practices include controlled entry and identification systems, metal detectors, security personnel or volunteers who challenge intruders, or doors fitted with electromagnetic locks. Since the late 1990s, school resource officers (SROs) have also been especially popular in secondary schools as a way to prevent violence, encouraged by federal subsidies. The Payne and Eckert and Na and Gottfredson entries elsewhere in this section discuss what is known about the effectiveness of these practices.

A closely related discipline strategy is the use of zero-tolerance policies in schools – another “tough on crime” practice engendered by the epidemic of youth violence in the late 1980s and the school rampage shootings of that decade and the next. The US Congress adopted the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994, mandating that students be suspended for 1 year if they brought a gun to school. A large majority of school districts adopted zero-tolerance policies for alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and violence. The use of suspension, especially long-term suspension, is thought to have disproportionate impact on minority and special education populations, whose behavior places them more at risk for suspension. Civil liberty advocates have argued that zero-tolerance policies rob youths of their right to a public education.

As with other security-related school polices, little high-quality evidence is available to guide decisions about which discipline management policies produce the most desirable outcomes. The issue is complex, requiring consideration of the trade-offs between in-school and out-of-school crime, the welfare of the youths who perpetrate the school-based offenses versus that of the other youths in the school, and long-term versus short-term outcomes. Clearly, removing troublemakers from school helps to maintain an environment more suitable for learning for these remaining students. But the costs of doing so for the offenders and society are not well understood. A complete analysis of the effect of zero-tolerance policies on youth crime would consider the displacement of crime from school to the community as well as the consequences for the suspended youths’ long-term criminal and academic careers. As youths lose more days of school to suspension, promotion to the next grade becomes less likely. And as youths fall further behind grade, they become much less likely to graduate, which is likely to increase subsequent crime. Clearly, although zero-tolerance policies benefit the classmates of troublesome youths, a rational discipline policy would also have to consider the broader consequences of such policies for the community.

More consistent with the research on effective crime deterrents are school discipline polices that emphasize the certainty of response to misbehavior over the severity of the response. Among the most effective school-based strategies for reducing youth violence, aggression, and problem behavior are behavioral interventions that target specific behaviors, systematically remove rewards for undesirable behavior, and apply contingent rewards for desired behavior or punishment for undesired behavior. These interventions are often applied to the high-risk youths who are most at risk for being suspended from school under zero-tolerance policies and as such could be incorporated into school routines for discipline management. Gottfredson et al. (2002) meta-analysis reported average effect size on measures of antisocial behavior and aggression of 0.34 (p <.05) across 12 studies of this type of behavioral intervention.

Examples of particularly effective behavioral interventions currently in use in schools are the “Good Behavior Game” (GBG; Kellam et al. 2008) and “home-based reinforcement” (Schumaker et al. 1977). The GBG is a classroom-based application of behavioral principles in which elementary school children are divided into small teams, and the teams are rewarded when the classroom behavior of the entire team meets or exceeds a pre-established standard. The GBG is played several times per week throughout the school year. The intervention was evaluated through a randomized trial involving 19 schools in Baltimore, with posttests conducted immediately following the intervention, as well as 6 and 14 years later. The results of this study indicate that participation in GBG is related to immediate reductions in aggressive behavior, rates of diagnosed antisocial personality disorder, and long-term effects (14 years later) on drug and alcohol use and smoking. Home-based reinforcement (HBR), applied to individual students displaying behavior problems, requires cooperation between teachers and parents in the management of the child’s behavior. After agreeing upon specific child behaviors to be extinguished or encouraged and establishing a baseline for these behaviors, teachers systematically record data on the target behavior on a “daily report card” that goes home to the parents. The parents, who generally have access to a wider array of reinforcers and punishments than do the teachers, use the teacher’s information to guide the application of rewards and punishments. As the desired behavior emerges, the frequency of reports for home is reduced, and the schedule of contingencies is relaxed. In the earliest research on HBR, application of this technique to junior high school students showed that school rule compliance, teacher satisfaction with the student, and academic performance improved as a result of participation in an HBR program (Schumaker et al. 1977). A recent review of 18 empirical studies of “school-home collaboration” interventions (Cox 2005) concluded that behavioral interventions using the daily report card strategy had the strongest effects on problem behavior. Lasting effects on crime are unknown.

These relatively simple and inexpensive behavioral interventions represent a potentially potent school-based prevention strategy that might be incorporated into routine school practice. The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; P.L. 105–17) required functional assessment and behavioral intervention procedures to be implemented in the disciplining of students with disabilities. The evidence-based programs described here would meet these federal requirements.

Behavioral principles have also been incorporated into school-wide discipline management systems. These systems are typically designed to clarify expectations for behavior. They establish school and classroom rules, communicate these rules as well as consequences for breaking them clearly to parents and students, establish systems for tracking both youth behavior and consequences applied by the schools, and monitor the consistency of the application of consequences for misbehavior. School-wide discipline management efforts, most often implemented by a school-based team of educators, are highly consistent with the research summarized earlier suggesting that students’ perceptions of school rules as fair and consistently enforced are related to reductions in problem behavior.

The meta-analysis described earlier (Gottfredson et al. 2002) also examined the effectiveness of this type of school-wide effort to improve discipline management and reported average effect size on measures of crime (0.27, p < .05) and alcohol and other drug use (0.24, p < .05). Among the studies included in the meta-analysis are two early studies of the effects of school-wide discipline management systems on problem behavior outcomes. Students in the intervention schools in the first of these efforts (Project PATHE implemented in nine Charleston, South Carolina, schools) reported less delinquent behavior and drug use and fewer punishments in school relative to the students in the comparison schools (Gottfredson 1986). A similar intervention was tested in a troubled Baltimore, Maryland, junior high school, with a special emphasis on replacing the school’s reliance on out-of-school suspension with a wider array of consequences for misbehavior. This intervention, which added positive reinforcement for desired behavior to the mix of consequences routinely used, also showed positive effects on student delinquency and rebellious behavior (Gottfredson 1987a). This early research, although based on relatively small numbers of schools and lacking randomization to condition, suggested that behavioral principles could be incorporated into “normal” school disciplinary practices and that an emphasis on consistency of rule enforcement as opposed to severity of punishment provided an effective deterrent.

Contemporary approaches to discipline management incorporate behavioral principles into comprehensive systems that include school-wide discipline policies and practices as well as targeted behavioral interventions. One popular approach is School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS). This system, adopted by over 5,600 schools throughout the United States, uses a school-team approach to apply behavioral interventions at different levels of intensity for students at different levels of need. Universal interventions focus on clarity of school and classroom rules and consistency of enforcement, and on screening for more serious behavior disorders. Group-based behavioral interventions are employed with the 5–10 % of youths who do not respond to the universal interventions. In addition, intensive, individualized behavioral interventions are employed to manage the behavior of the small segment of the population that is especially at risk. Unfortunately, the research on the effectiveness of SWPBS is not as sophisticated as it should be for such a widely disseminated program. Although dozens of studies have demonstrated that problem behavior decreases after the intervention is put in place, only one (Sprague et al. 2001) compared change in the intervention school(s) with the change that might be expected in the absence of an intervention. Even this study is not useful for isolating the effects of the behavior management strategies because it also included the introduction of a prevention curriculum along with the school-wide behavioral supports. Higher-quality research is needed to assess the effects of this promising approach on crime both in and out of school.

School Culture

School culture is potentially the most potent aspect of school climate because it involves proximal interpersonal influences on student behavior. School culture refers to the quality of human relationships in the school and includes both peer culture and the extent to which the organization is communally organized. All of these dimensions influence youth crime and can be successfully manipulated to reduce it.

Behavioral Norms

Cultural norms, expectations, and beliefs influence all behaviors. Recent research on school culture (summarized in Cook et al. 2010) concurs that norms and expectations for behavior, of both peers and adult, are powerful determinants of behavior, net of the individual’s own beliefs.

Of course, school “inputs” are key determinants of the predominant cultural beliefs in the school. School desegregation and retention policies, as well as the grade span, of the school can influence school culture by altering the mix of students in the school. But several more programmatic attempts to alter school culture have also been studied. These programs have in common a focus on clarifying behavioral norms. That is, in contrast to the instructional programs described in the previous section that focus on teaching youths with specific social competency skills, these normative change programs focus on clarifying expectations for behavior. Some signal appropriate behavior through media campaigns or ceremonies; others involve youths in activities aimed at clarifying misperceptions about normative behavior; and still others increase exposure to prosocial models and messages.

Several studies of attempts to clarify norms for behavior have been reported. Gottfredson et al. (2002) summarized effects reported in 13 studies and concluded that such programs are effective for reducing crime, substance use, and antisocial behavior. Two of the better-known examples of programs in this category are the Bullying Prevention Program (Olweus et al. 1999) and the Safe Dates Program (Foshee et al. 1998).

Olweus’s anti-bullying program includes school-wide, classroom, and individual components. School-wide components include increased adult supervision at bullying “hot spots” and school-wide discussions of bullying. Classroom components focus on developing and enforcing rules against bullying. Individual counseling is also provided to children identified as bullies and victims. A large-scale evaluation of this program in Norwegian schools demonstrated that it led to reductions in student bullying and victimization and decreases in the incidence of vandalism, fighting, and theft (Olweus et al. 1999). A very recent review of anti-bullying programs summarizing results from 59 studies conducted between 1983 and 2008 (Farrington and Ttofi 2009) confirmed that anti-bullying programs are effective for reducing bullying and student victimization and that Olweus’s program is particularly effective.

The Safe Dates Program targets norms for dating violence among adolescents. The school portion of the intervention includes a theater production performed by peers; a ten-session curriculum addressing dating violence norms, gender stereotyping, and conflict management skills; and a poster contest. The community portion of the intervention includes services for adolescents experiencing abuse and training for community service providers. Foshee et al. (1998) found that intervention students reported less psychological abuse and violence against dating partners than did control students.

Based on these and other relatively rigorous evaluations, Gottfredson et al. (2002) concluded that interventions aimed at establishing norms or expectations for behavior can be effective in preventing substance use, delinquency, aggression, and other problem behaviors. It should be noted, however, that evaluations of these programs seldom provide clean tests of the proposition that culture matters, since the programs more often than not combine attempts to alter norms with other components aimed at increasing levels of supervision and enforcement (e.g., Olweus) or improving social competency skills (Foshee).

We would be remiss if we failed to mention that sometimes school-based practices seek to clarify norms for behavior backfire. One example is a peer counseling program that deliberately mixed delinquent and nondelinquent youths in counseling sessions in which youths were encouraged to share their problems. The intent was that the negative beliefs and attitudes voiced by the delinquent youths would be corrected through interaction with the nondelinquent youths. A randomized experiment testing this program as implemented in the Chicago Public Schools (Gottfredson 1987b) reported predominantly harmful effects for high school students: high school treatment youths reported significantly more delinquent behavior than controls. A more recent large-scale evaluation of the Reconnecting Youth program (Cho et al. 2005) also found negative effects for a group counseling program for at-risk high school students. This program sought to “reconnect” truant, underachieving high school students (and to reduce their deviance and substance use) by developing a positive peer-group culture. Students were grouped together in classes of 10–12 students for a full semester during which a trained group leader (following a standardized curriculum) attempted to develop a climate conducive to building trust. The evaluation reported only negative effects 6 months following the end of the intervention. Treatment students showed greater bonding to high-risk peers, lower bonding to school and conventional peers, lower grade point average (GPA), and higher anger than control students at the 6-month follow-up.

Communal Social Organization

A second aspect of school culture that has been studied extensively pertains to the affective bonds between students and teachers and among adults in the school. The concept of “communal social organization” (CSO) was first introduced as part of the effective schools debate in the 1980s and studied by Bryk and colleagues (Bryk and Driscoll 1988) mostly in the context of predictors of school achievement. Communally organized schools are schools characterized by high levels of social support, connectedness, common goals, and sense of shared purpose. Members of such schools are more likely to be involved and personally committed to the school. This aspect of school culture is especially important for school crime research because individuallevel student affective bonds are an important predictor of delinquency, and it seems reasonable to hypothesize that schools high on CSO would produce higher levels of student bonding to school.

Research suggests that average student attachment to school and CSO more generally do inhibit student problem behaviors. The most comprehensive test of this linkage was provided by Payne et al. (2003) using data from the NSDPS. This study demonstrated that more communally organized schools experience less student delinquency and teacher victimization and that the effect of communal school organization on student delinquency is mediated by average student bonding.

This survey research dovetails nicely with an ambitious ethnographic study of school violence conducted for the National Research Council. In 2003, the Committee to Study Youth Violence in Schools of the National Research Council published its report on the circumstances surrounding several incidents involving extreme lethal violence that had occurred in the nation’s schools (National Research Council 2003). The report was based on detailed case studies of six schools and communities that had experienced school shootings resulting in death. Among the committee’s several insights into the factors leading to the incidents is the following:

the sense of community between youth and adults in these schools…was lacking. In the worst example, the school allowed a school newspaper to print an article that humiliated one of the students who became a shooter. The adults involved may have been too distant from the students to prevent some social processes leading to the potential for violence or resulting in an intolerable humiliation from some potentially vulnerable youth. (p. 256)

This observation is consistent with the research on more mundane forms of school violence just summarized. It suggests that strategies that increase social bonds between students and others in their schools will reduce misbehavior by increasing informal controls. Students who care what adults in the school think about them will be less likely to act in ways that jeopardize their positive regard. More concretely, students who have close ties to the adults in the school will be more likely to report on rumors of impending attacks. But how can such bonds be built or maintained? Possibilities include organizing the school so that the typical teacher interacts with fewer students, reducing class size, and creating more “communal” social environments in which members are more tightly joined together by common goals and in which members are held in place by the support and positive regard of others in the organization. Reorganizing schools to create a smaller feel to the schooling experience is an effective strategy for increasing youths’ sense of connection and that enhanced connectedness should hold criminal behavior in check.

A less drastic intervention with the same objectives is mentoring. Youth mentoring programs often target youths at risk of behavioral problems, assigning them to an adult mentor who spends time with the young person, provides support and guidance, and offers general guidance. Evaluations of such programs have been mixed, but often null or weak results can be attributed to implementation failure. As with any voluntary program, mentoring programs in practice are often not as intensive as intended (e.g., Karcher 2008). However, a recent meta-analysis of mentoring programs (Eby et al. 2007) demonstrated small but positive effects of mentoring programs on several behaviors of interest in this research paper: withdrawal behaviors (e.g., school dropout, truancy – 18 studies), deviance (e.g., suspension from school, aggressive behavior, property crime – 15 studies), and substance use (7 studies). This review included a wide range of types of mentoring programs, but outcomes for youth mentoring programs were as strong on these outcomes as were the other types of mentoring programs (academic and workplace mentoring) included in the review.

One of the better-known models for adult mentoring, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program (BBBS), is a community-based program identified by BVP as a model primarily on the basis of evidence from a large-scale randomized trial that found that mentored youths were 46 % less likely than control youth to initiate drug use, 27 % less likely to initiate alcohol use, and almost one-third less likely to hit someone during the study period (Tierney et al. 1995). Community-based mentoring involves meetings between the mentor and mentee at times and places selected by the pair. Many schools now provide “school-based mentoring,” (SBM), which involves meetings primarily in school during the school day. A recent evaluation of the BBBS SBM model, also involving random assignment of a large number of youths, shows that although it is not as effective as the community-based alternative, SBM does improve academic performance, reduce truancy, and reduce serious school infractions (Herrera et al. 2007) at least during the first year of mentoring. Consistent with results from smaller-scale randomized trials of SBM showing positive effects on connectedness and social support (Karcher 2008); Herrera et al. (2007) found that mentored youths reported more often than controls the presence of a nonparental adult in their life who provides social supports. At the end of the second year of the study during which minimal SBM was provided, the positive program effect on truancy was sustained but the other positive effects were not. Herrera et al. (2007) conclude that although the SBM model is promising, it needs to be strengthened to ensure longer and higher-quality mentor/mentee matches than are typically found in schools.

Discussion And Conclusions

In this brief essay, we summarized research on school discipline management policies and practices and showed that they are important determinants of school crime. Research consistently shows that in schools in which students report that the school rules are clearly stated, fair, and consistently enforced, and in schools in which students have participated in establishing mechanisms for reducing misbehavior, students are much less likely to engage in problem behaviors. We showed that evaluations of specific school-based programs that employ behavioral strategies to monitor and reinforce student behavior are effective both for controlling behavior in school and for reducing subsequent crime. Also, altering school-wide discipline management policies and practices to incorporate behavioral principles, clarify expectations for behavior, and consistently enforce rules reduces problem behavior. We discussed popular “get-tough” approaches to school discipline such as zero-tolerance policies. Although the effects of these polices on crime are not known, we argued that they might actually increase crime outside of school. There is a clear need for rigorous research on the effects of these policies.

Finally, we summarized research showing that perceptions of social norms for behavior are related as expected to problem behavior, net of individuals’ personal beliefs. In schools in which the prevailing norm is to condone delinquent activities, students are more likely to do so regardless of their own personal dispositions to engage in these behaviors. But we showed that schools can intervene to change perceptions of norms and expectations for behavior and that doing so reduces delinquency, although attempts to do so sometimes backfire. We also reported on evidence suggesting that in schools in which students feel an emotional attachment to the adults in the school, their misbehavior is restrained. We discussed several strategies that might increase communal social organization and that show promise for increasing youths’ sense of connection to the school. We reviewed research on school-based mentoring programs and showed that they also hold considerable promise for crime prevention. Although research documents positive effects of these programs on social relations outcomes, more work is needed to test the full potential of more potent models of school-based mentoring than have been tested to date.

Given the limitations of the evidence base, we are more confident in making recommendations about research priorities than about effective policy. Indeed, this field is burdened by a lack of timely policy research and a tendency to launch major initiatives without first (or ever!) doing a high-quality evaluation. Note in this regard the various “get-tough” policies that have been encouraged by the federal government and adopted nationwide since the 1990s, the widespread use of SROs, or the School-Wide Positive Behavior Support package that has been adopted by 5,500 schools.

We have several recommendations to guide evaluation research on interventions. The first recommendation is to actually do such research, as suggested above. An impediment to learning about the effects of many school reforms is that the reforms tend to be implemented in all schools in the affected jurisdiction at once. This hinders rigorous evaluation because it leaves no schools in which to measure what would happen in the absence of the reform. A smarter approach would be to randomly assign schools to different phasein periods, allowing for comparison during the first few years of the schools who implement the reform early and those who will implement it in the future.

Other recommendations are to measure effects on crime and other forms of misbehavior in evaluations conducted of interventions intended to improve academic performance, to capture the most serious forms of crime in evaluations rather than only less serious misbehavior, and to assess effects of prevention practices and policies on the entire student population rather than only on the students who are targeted.

Finally, it is important to identify programs to create more cohesive, communal, personalized environments. Many approaches to creating such environments seem plausible, but no rigorous research has yet established that such changes can be accomplished and that doing so results in a reduction in crime. This appears to be the next large challenge facing research on school-based prevention.


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