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Dealing With Teen Vandalism

The official definition of vandalism is given by the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). It says that vandalism is "willful or malicious destruction, injury, disfigurement, or defacement of any public or private property, real or personal, without the consent of the owner or persons having custody or control" as stated in the most recent Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Fact Sheet on Juvenile Vandalism.

Vandalism includes a wide variety of acts such as:
  • breaking or throwing items out of windows
  • damaging parked cars
  • damaging trees
  • posting graffiti in public places
  • setting false fire alarms
  • setting fires
  • smashing mailboxes
  • stealing
  • tampering with equipment (e.g., vending machines, pay telephones)
  • trashing unguarded property (e.g., empty buildings and/or lots, public or semi-public toilet facilities, school property) 

Making Sense of Adolescent Vandalism—

There are a number of reasons why an adolescent might vandalize property:
  • could be part of an initiation in a gang
  • in the case of graffiti, the adolescent considers vandalism as a form of self-expression or art
  • someone dared him to do it
  • sometimes adolescents make poor decisions when they are bored
  • the girl he likes admires someone who takes risks
  • they could be succumbing to peer-pressure
  • to get revenge against someone

Some of the behaviors and situations that are linked to adolescent vandalism include:
  • binge drinking
  • feeling hostile towards the property owner
  • peer pressure
  • seeking money to buy drugs 

In the case of graffiti, however, there may be other factors at works. At least some graffiti vandals consider themselves "graffiti artists" or "street artists." It seems that these teenagers view their efforts to be towards ornamenting or enhancing coupled with self-expression. The international fame of Banksy, the English graffiti artist, and other graffiti artists has likely contributed to “teen confusion” about whether graffiti vandalism should be considered criminal.

Adolescent's graffiti creations, while not in sanctioned places, may have artistic merit. This possibility places this type of adolescent vandalism in contrast to types of vandalism in which items are devalued through being smashed or broken. Graffiti is only “wrong” because it is created in the wrong place.

While addressing adolescent vandalism often involves reparation and repair of damaged property, addressing adolescent vandalism involving graffiti may also involve providing the teenager with a sanctioned place in which to perform his/her "art" and opportunities to put the talent to a positive use. 

Consequences Associated with Adolescent Vandalism—

Besides repairing damage to structures, covering graffiti, replacing ruined property, there are other high costs to adolescent vandalism. Publicly viewable vandalism changes the atmosphere of a place. It may give the impression that the people in the area do not value their space and that the area is not well-protected and perhaps unsafe. This may result in reduced use of the area in and around the damaged property. Property, such as subway cars, that has to be removed from service in order to be cleaned of graffiti or repaired also can cause disruption of service. 

How can you know if your adolescent is engaging in vandalism?

Unfortunately, vandalism is very easy for an adolescent to hide. Unless they bring a street sign home as a souvenir, there is no ‘evidence’ to find, and rarely do they act differently than they normally do. That’s why it is important for moms and dads to do two things:
  1. know where your adolescent is at all times, because an adolescent who knows his mother or father cares - and is involved - is more likely to avoid becoming a vandal
  2. talk about vandalism with your teens and explain why it is not a good idea

Are moms and dads liable?

Vandalism, defined as the willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public or private property, has become a significant problem in many communities across the United States. As a result, many states have passed laws to make moms and dads liable for their children's vandalism. Although the law generally states that one person is not responsible for the actions of another, and that the person who commits an illegal act is the one who suffers the consequences, the parent-child relationship carries some unique responsibilities.

Although moms and dads may be liable for their teen’s acts of vandalism, the good news is most states limit how much a mother or father can be forced to pay. In addition, some states limit the financial responsibility to property damage, though others also include personal injuries. Depending on state law, parents may only be required to pay for damages to property owned by public entities like cities and schools, though some states require payment to private property owners as well.

A teen can be charged monetary fines for their acts, and also can be charged with a crime if they are caught vandalizing. Depending on age and state law, teens can be processed through the juvenile justice system or through the adult system. If vandalism damages occurred as a result of gang activity or if the property damaged belonged to a school, the penalties can be more severe.

Vandalism isn't the only act for which moms and dads can be liable. For example, if an adolescent takes his father’s gun, even without permission, and brings it to school or commits a crime, the father may be subject to criminal charges. Similarly, if a teenager is at fault in injuring someone or damaging property while driving, the parents can be liable. Moms and dads can also be held liable for permitting a minor to drive without a license or learner's permit. 

How to explain the problems vandalism causes?

It is important that moms and dads explain how to distinguish pranks from vandalism. Often, adolescents think vandalism is a ‘victimless crime’ (e.g., they don’t believe they’re hurting anyone by spray painting graffiti on a brick building, or tossing a few eggs at a neighbor’s car). Help them see the ramifications of their actions. Explain to them that vandalism costs taxpayers a lot of money because the property must be repaired and the crime must be investigated. That takes money away from other important things that your adolescent may care about. For example, because the school has to use money to cover up graffiti, they may have to cut out art programs. Besides repairing damage, there are other high costs to adolescent vandalism. Publicly viewable vandalism changes the atmosphere of a place. It may give the impression that the people in the area do not value their space and that the area is not well-protected and perhaps unsafe.

If you find out your teenager has vandalized something, the best consequence is to make them clean it up and/or pay for repairs. When they have to scrape off the gross, dried egg – and they see that it takes off paint – the message will be loud and clear. If you happen to have a graffiti artist on your hands, then it’s important to provide them with a sanctioned place to stage his art or opportunities to put the talent to a positive use.

Also, it’s important that moms and dads communicate that vandalism is a crime. If they are caught, they can be charged with a crime and that will stain their permanent record as they try to go to college and start a career.

Addressing Adolescent Vandalism—

Different approaches are taken to adolescent vandalism. Education is one approach. Making sure that adolescents can distinguish pranks from vandalism is one issue addressed.

Repairing and restoring property, which has been found to ease public concerns as well, is another. Reparation is often part of the restitution if an adolescent vandal is caught.

A third approach to preventing adolescent vandalism is prevention. One way of preventing vandalism is providing alternative activities for adolescents. Teen centers, schools, and community groups may sponsor alcohol-free activities, for example. Patrols in areas that are susceptible to vandalism may also help discourage adolescent vandals from harming it. 

Preventing Vandalism—

If you see an area that has been damaged or defaced by adolescent vandalism, report it immediately. If it’s your own property, make any necessary repairs as soon as you are cleared to do so by local authorities. Often, vandals will re-hit an area if they believe nobody is watching or nobody cares that it has been defaced.

One of the best ways to keep adolescents from engaging in vandalism, or really in any negative or risky behavior, is to provide adolescents with positive options to use their free time. Encourage your adolescent to take up a sport, club, exercise class, or extracurricular activity. Allow them to get a job babysitting, mowing lawns, or walking dogs, which will instill a strong work ethic and help them earn extra money while keeping them busy. Check the YMCA, churches, Boys and Girls Clubs, 4H, and other youth nonprofits for safe adolescent activities. Often, adolescents can take classes at the local community college and transfer the credits to the college of their choice after high school. They can take most electives without a prerequisite, and might enjoy the taste of adulthood that goes along with taking classes at a higher learning institution.

My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents

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