The relationship between school and youth offending.

Author:Sutherland, Alison


The purpose of this research, conducted with a sample of young people in three New Zealand youth justice residential facilities, was to explore the compulsory school experience as perceived by young people who went on to commit serious criminal offences. By listening to their stories I hoped to identify the risk factors, if any, that schools contribute to the developmental pathways towards criminal offending. A significant finding was that although the school experience does not cause a young person to commit crimes, the cumulative effect of negative school experiences can result in a student's alienation from the education system, aggravating pre-existing risk factors that lead a vulnerable person towards chronic criminal offending. What also emerged was the unique opportunity that schools provide to interrupt the pathway to youth offending through a process of early identification and timely intervention.


Although most young New Zealanders make significant, positive contributions to their families/whanau, peer groups, schools and communities, many children and young people offend at some stage while they are growing up. The majority do so in a limited way, committing only minor offences infrequently that may not come to the attention of the police. In 2007 there were 1,540 police apprehensions of 14- to l6-year-olds per 10,000 of the population for non-traffic offences, the majority of which were offences against property (see Figure 1). A significant number of these offences, according to New Zealand primary youth court judge Andrew Becroft, are committed by a small group of young people, a high proportion of whom are Maori (Becroft 2003, 2004a).


There are a number of factors that contribute to the trajectory towards youth offending, including being born into a family that values antisocial behaviour or lacks effective parenting skills (Lashlie 2002), peer group influence (Fagan and Najman 2003), neighbourhood and community factors, and low socio-economic status (Lipsey and Derzon 1998). However, it is not just the external environment that negatively affects some children. There is evidence to suggest that some people may be predisposed towards antisocial behaviour and criminal offending. This may be through personal characteristics that lean towards aggressive and impulsive behaviour, or because of neurological damage and cognitive impairment, possibly as a result of prenatal exposure to drugs and/or alcohol (Loeber and Farrington 1998). There is also a link between young people offending and non-engagement with the school system (Becroft 2004a, Gottfredson 2001). We know that many young offenders were out of school at the time of their offending, but there is limited information on why these youth became alienated from the school system: did they leave school to offend or offend because they were out of school? There is even less information on the role schools may play in the pathway to youth offending.


Substantial research has gone into identifying the risk factors that cause a young person to offend, but despite the thousands of hours that students spend in school there is little information on the role of schools in youth offending. From the research data that does exist it is clear that educational success and school attachment are key protective factors in preventing offending by young people (Gottfredson 2001, Hirschi 1969, Maughan 1994, Sprott et al. 2000). However, schools have also been implicated in contributing to young people's risk of criminal offending (Rutter et al. 1979). These "education-created" risk factors can be placed into seven categories.

  1. Inadequate Transition to School, and from Primary to Secondary School

    All school transitions - including entry into primary from preschool, intermediate from primary school, or secondary school from intermediate - present developmental challenges that rely on the previous acquisition of essential social skills, and each brings its own unique risk factors (Kellam et al. 1998). These risk factors include adapting to an unfamiliar classroom environment, new teacher relationships and the reconstruction of the peer group. Children have to adapt to a range of new demands and expectations from previously unknown adults, negotiate new roles for themselves, form new relationships with peers, and incorporate new dimensions into their self-evaluations (Reinke and Herman 2002).

    The transition from primary to secondary school is particularly challenging because it involves the movement from one teacher to multiple teachers, a few subjects taught in one classroom by one teacher to multiple subjects taught by a number of teachers in different classrooms, differing teacher styles, greater and more complex academic demands, and greater demands for self-monitoring and self-reliance, with the need to move around several classrooms (Kellam et al. 1998, Wasserman and Miller 1998). This transition period is especially risky for girls, who are more likely than boys to experience pubertal maturity at the same time as they experience the transition from primary to secondary school (Caspi et al. 1993, Marcotte et al. 2002, Pepler and Craig 2005).

  2. An Unhealthy School Climate

    An unhealthy school climate is linked with a poorly organised, malfunctioning school that has a prevalent sense of despondency among students and staff, accompanying high rates of teacher and student absenteeism, and a higher incidence of school mobility (McEvoy and Welker 2001). Such schools are characterised by teachers who are routinely late to class and students being left unsupervised and vulnerable; cramped classrooms and overcrowding; poor physical condition and appearance of school buildings and grounds; high student-teacher ratios; and insufficient teacher training on effective behaviour management (Akin-Little and Little 2003, Kashani et al. 2001, Leone et al. 2003). An unhealthy school climate not only contributes to academic failure, leading to a lack of school attachment, school drop-out and criminal offending, but can also contribute to aggressive students' violent behaviour (Edwards 2001, Loeber and Farrington 2000, Reinke and Herman 2002).

  3. Schools' Contribution to Academic Failure

    A number of longitudinal studies demonstrate that children who are struggling academically are more likely to turn to crime than those who are performing adequately or well (e.g. Dishion et al. 1991, Elliot and Voss 1974, Flannery 2000, Seydlitz and .Jenkins 1998). This is supported by evidence that the intellectual functioning of young offenders is at the low-average to average range and that they have significant deficits in reading, maths, and written and oral language compared to their non-offending peers (Leone et al. 2003). There is New Zealand evidence that contributions to academic failure, other than low intelligence, lack of student interest and behavioural problems, include ineffective and inappropriate teaching methods, and a school personnel's belief that students from lower socio-economic, disadvantaged families and minority groups have only limited potential and do not require consideration or extension (Macfarlane 2004). It has also been argued that examinations, testing and class grouping are biased, with children from lower socio-economic homes being less likely to be placed into classes that will lead them to university, and that some schools have been or are racially segregated, to the detriment of students' educational attainment (Seydlitz and Jenkins 1998).

  4. Anti-social Peer Relationships Formed at School

    Because they assemble together large numbers of at-risk youth, schools can become breeding grounds for the development of criminal offending, especially where there is little adult supervision (Cohen and Felson 1979). Both inside and outside the classroom, students develop social hierarchies and groups that have a significant influence on their performance and play a large role in shaping both their appropriate and inappropriate behaviours (Hann and Boek 2001, Reinke and Herman 2002). Particularly at risk are children who exhibit verbally and physically aggressive behaviours, especially those who display non-normative forms of aggression such as relationally aggressive boys and overtly aggressive girls (Bloomquist and Schnell 2002).

    Once rejected, these children remain isolated from "normal" peers, even after interventions have been implemented to improve their social behaviour. This peer rejection deprives a child of the socialising experiences that he or she may obtain from pro-social peers and sets the stage for him or her to become involved with an antisocial peer group (Church 2003, Gardner et al. 2004). This process of peer rejection spiralling to disruptive behaviours and youth offending begins in the primary school years and accelerates during the intermediate and high school years, becoming more serious, more frequent and more covert as the children mature (Church 2003, McMahon and Forehand 2003, Reinke and Herman 2002). New Zealand's detention system, whereby students being punished for school misconduct are grouped together during lunch periods, after school and on the occasional Saturday, can become breeding grounds for discontented, embittered and alienated students to mix with like-minded peers.

  5. Negative Relationships between Students and School Personnel

    Research evidence verifies that a teacher's style, attitude and expectations can adversely affect students' educational and social outcomes (e.g. Kennedy and Kennedy 2004, McEvoy and Welker 2001). Where the teacher-student relationship is characterised by high levels of conflict and negative interactions, a vicious cycle can be set in motion in which there is an escalation in the student's antisocial responses to the teacher's requests, a punitive reaction to this response...

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