Scholars with sticky fingers: the reality of Wilson’s theft culture


It was a normal sight: a student walked into the store. He wore a grey hoodie and sweats with his school backpack swung over his shoulder. A smile spread across his face as he walked past the manager. He knew what he was about to do–he knew the routine well. He grabbed three packs of gum and a bag of Cheetos as he made his way towards the back of the store. He stuffed the items into his bag, made an about-face, and walked out.

Theft culture is undeniably a major part of our high school experience. It’s a given that leaving your belongings unattended is a bad idea. If you misplace your phone or any valuable item in the atrium, you would automatically assume it had been stolen.

Stealing from different Tenleytown establishments is common in the Wilson community, though motivations and methods vary. In a survey conducted by The Beacon, the main reasons students steal are “just for fun” or due to a lack of money. “[We] used to go to CVS, bring duffel bags, used to fill them up, then resell it,” one student said. Reselling stolen goods such as gum, chips, or candy is not unusual. Many students choose to steal the goods they sell at school in order to make a profit. However, oftentimes students are unaware of the consequences of selling things inside school, such as in-school suspension.

While many companies in Tenleytown are major corporations, they still notice the large amount of theft that takes place within their stores, and have different ways of dealing with shoplifters. At Best Buy, one manager explained that, since they sell top-of-the-line products, the shoplifting can take an even bigger toll. “Once we caught a group of kids with four smartphone products, and the total added up to $158.99,” he said. “We try to stop as many people as possible since so few products can add up to such a large amount.”

Stores like Best Buy that sell valuable items are more likely to stop someone who is stealing than establishments like CVS or Whole Foods, whose products are often less valuable. The prevalence of theft has reached a point where workers feel helpless. “There is nothing we can do about it,” a CVS worker stated. “I just mind my business.”

“I often see kids stealing small items, snacks, and I let them go. It’s a lost cause,” said one worker at Whole Foods. Another employee at Whole Foods said, “if we attempted to catch every kid who tries to shoplift, that’s all we would be doing.”

When we spoke to one student about the theft culture at Wilson, they said, “I feel like there’s so much stealing that’s done that so many people are desensitized from it.” Because so many students steal, it has become so normal that students don’t realize the illegality of what is really happening. 53.2 percent of the 114 students surveyed said they have had a personal item stolen on school grounds. Many people have had their phones stolen from them in the locker room or the atrium, just by leaving them unattended for as little as five minutes.

Based on the survey, 88.1 percent of Wilson students believe that stealing is normalized at Wilson. A culture like this can increase the amount of stealing, which can lead to more dire consequences. In DC, shoplifting can be filed as a misdemeanor, which goes on the offender’s record, and remains there indefinitely if the offender is 18 years or older. Stores in Tenleytown, such as Whole Foods, say they will generally take action on shoplifters only when it is not a first offense, though it does depends on the staff working at the time. They take note of who they catch, so if the same person is caught again they can charge that person with a higher offense. Of the 58.3 percent of students who have admitted to shoplifting, 11 percent said they had been caught in Tenleytown.

Speaking with a student who has grand larceny on his record puts the bigger picture of this issue into perspective. This student has been banned from various Tenleytown establishments including CVS, Whole Foods, and Best Buy, and a few other stores outside of Tenleytown. The student has various motivations for stealing. “I guess it’s for the adrenaline rush–it’s fun,” he said. “It’s not really fun to steal because there’s always a risk, but like, it’s really fun to get away with it.” Having grand larceny on your record can significantly impact your future. However, when this student goes to court, the option to have his record erased will become available because he was a juvenile when he commited the crimes. “I know what my future has for me, and when you steal you have to know your rights. You have to know what you can get away with and what you can’t,” he said.

Oftentimes, we forget about the realities of stealing–maybe because it has become such a normalized part of our society, or maybe some people just don’t care about the consequences that follow. Although it’s almost never discussed between staff and students, one thing is still clear: stealing is a prominent part of the culture that surrounds us.