Friday, August 13, 2010

Playground Crime Common, Mostly Untracked

It's amazingly unfortunate how far some people will go to do damage to a playground. Police blotters in communities all over the world, affluent and underprivileged alike, tell the tale.

Countless horror stories fill the record with news blurbs that frame playgrounds as crime scenes, such as this Aug. 2 report by WOKV television in Jacksonville, Fla. in which a 20-year-old man was found with a "life-threatening" gunshot wound and "the playground was closed off with crime scene tape as investigators searched for clues."

In line with the absence of solid, enforceable playground design and equipment standards, crime statistics on schoolyards and public recreation facilities simply aren't kept by any level of government. So the research is scattered and purely anecdotal, except for a recent "experimental" attempt by the U.K.

The children's British Crime Survey published in June recorded more than 2 million incidents of theft and violence against kids between the age of 10 and 15. However the majority of incidents "were no more than playground pushing and shoving or family spats," the Guardian newspaper reported.

With no U.S. governmental attempts to assess playground crime, the vast record of press accounts offers a rather alarming picture. Parks and schools are the sites of just about every heinous offense, only white-collar crimes seem to be absent from the long list topped by murder, rape, assault and arson. Drugs and theft are also commonplace.

A common playground theft racket is exemplified by this New Jersey case. According to the Atlantic Highlands Herald, a Middletown Township police investigation found that a group of playground thieves would rent U-Hauls and travel throughout the area's neighboring counties stealing playground equipment. They would then sell it at garage sales and a local public auction.

And last but not least, there's always petty vandalism to consider. Without security measures such as at least a non-climbable fence and sufficient lighting, playgrounds are sitting ducks for aimless, usually nocturnal vandals. Vandalism ends up costing millions of dollars every year, requiring vigilant attempts at prevention.

An Ounce of Prevention

While the need for playground crime prevention apparently hasn't made a noticeable impact on most public officials and policymakers, some steps have been taken toward this end.

Kids-only playgrounds where no solo adults are allowed have increased nationwide. For the most part these are toothless legislative gestures that are rarely enforced, but at least the heart is in the right place.

The only viable long-term solution to preventing playground crime is a two-tiered approach that combines youth and community involvement in playground design with a greater emphasis on security systems tailored for recreational facilities.

“I think [community and youth involvement] leads to more creative designs," playground expert Kate Becker told PTO Today. "It leads to a playground that’s used more, and it leads to a place that’s going to be vandalized less.”

On the security system front, the dawn of systems made specifically for playground equipment is finally here. MiracleTech by Miracle Recreation Equipment Co. of Monnet, Mo. is the trailblazer, offering nighttime video surveillance, motion detected lighting and an ultra-sonic sound barrier that only affects teens and young adults.