Campus Grafitti an Ever-Present Problem

by Matt Benoit

Horizon Reporter

 “Last fall and winter quarter was really bad,” said Carl Adams, Whatcom Community College’s maintenance department supervisor.

While it might sound like Adams is talking about inclement weather, he is actually talking about a year-round problem: graffiti.

Adams estimates that the college spends, on average, at least 10 hours a week dealing with graffiti, in addition to the financial aspects of buying paint, primer, and replacement parts for vandalized equipment.

And it all adds up.

Since the college began tracking damages in 2008, the annual cost of graffiti clean-up has ranged from $2,000 to $4,000, according to Brian Keeley, Whatcom’s director of facilities.

Whatcom’s standard procedure for dealing with graffiti, said Adams, depends on the magnitude of the tagging. If the graffiti appears to be gang-related, the police will be called by way of dialing 911 and reporting a non-emergency incident.

Police will then respond by coming to the college, taking photos, and assigning each incident a case number. The college is then free to clean the graffiti, and will eventually report back to police on the matter.

Usually, if graffiti is spotted by custodians cleaning bathrooms, they will attempt to clean it off themselves. If unable to do so easily, Whatcom’s maintenance department will deal with the problem, painting over the graffiti or doing whatever they must to keep things graffiti-free.

In addition to graffiti on restroom stalls and urinal dividers, toilet paper dispensers are also carved on. Adams said the dispensers cost $30 to replace. Stall and urinal dividers are often painted over with either a dark red or black color paint instead of lighter colors used in previous years, like blue or tan, because some graffiti is less visible that way. 

The nature and location of the graffiti can vary, but Adams said it mostly occurs in men’s restrooms, and ranges from racist and sexual comments to those of an otherwise “adolescent” nature. If added comments to original graffiti are not immediately erased, Adams said the sites can easily turn into message boards.

While some tagging, such as a 2009 incident where three teen youths vandalized the exterior of several campus buildings, is from non-students, most graffiti is likely committed by students because they have access to campus buildings.

And while most are likely one or two-timers, some people are repeat offenders. Several particular “tags” from vandals last year indicated that several males were likely responsible for much of the graffiti. Adams said one was almost caught in a restroom, with the smell of fresh paint still lingering in the air.

 “Paint would be dripping off the walls,” said Adams of the near apprehensions. Those particular incidents from last year, which are still open cases for the Bellingham Police Department, are among the worst examples of graffiti that he can recall.

 “It was so extreme,” he said, estimating that at one point last year, they were spending 16 to 20 man-hours a week on graffiti.

This quarter, Adams said that graffiti incidents have slowed down, although there have still been a few instances of vandalism.  

If students see graffiti, he says they should contact Colleen Hanson, assistant to the vice president for administrative services, so a work order can be made to clean up the graffiti. And if students should catch someone in the act of committing on-campus vandalism, Adams said it is better to get a description of the suspect rather than try to stop them and risk a confrontation.

“It’s not really their place to try to stop it,” he said, adding that the better the description is, the better the chance they’ll have at being caught.

Keeley said the only time he could recall anyone actually catching vandals in the act was when an instructor entered a bathroom in Kulshan Hall several years ago and found students vandalizing it. They ran off, though, and were not apprehended.

“If somebody is caught, they will be charged,” said Adams, who jokingly added that he’d have a hard time controlling himself if he every caught anybody in the act of campus graffiti.

On the rare occasions where someone is caught, they are prosecuted.

Keeley said that after he prepares a spreadsheet detailing damages from each incident and sends it to the courthouse, the college receives a restitution check to cover damages if the suspect is found guilty.  And although those checks cover costs fully, there have only been two cases since 2008 that resulted in restitution (the first, in April 2008, totaled $900, and the second, in May 2009, totaled $1,300).

When someone isn’t caught, though, damage costs come out of Whatcom’s institutional budget, funding that could be used for other things. “It’s a real waste,” said Keeley.

 Although graffiti will likely never stop being a problem on college campuses, Adams said he just doesn’t understand why it occurs.

“I don’t know what thrill people get outta doing it,” he said. “It’s vandalism.” 

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