The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime is the first of its kind to prove the link between victimisation and delinquency. More than 4,000 pupils have been tracked since 1998 as they moved from primary schools into state and independent secondary and special schools in Edinburgh.
Self-reporting pupil questionnaires, school reports and children's panel cases have now shown there is a one in five chance of a 12-year-old victim becoming a delinquent.
Presenting his findings to the Scottish Association for the Study of Delinquency in Edinburgh last week, David Smith, professor of criminology at the university's centre for law and society, said: "The fact that being a victim can be used to predict delinquent behaviour even three years later is quite remarkable. Equally well it is possible to predict that a delinquent can become a victim."
The victimisation described in the study includes assault, or having property vandalised or stolen. Delinquent behaviour includes shoplifting, assault, carrying weapons and rowdy behaviour. The link was less to do with social class, strength of parental bond, or even bullying, than the company the children kept.
Professor Smith said: "A vital factor is social interaction - whether young people are mixing with delinquents. The link depends on who their friends are and what they do in their spare time. They may, for example, offend on the way to an amusement arcade as well as beat each other up."
He added: "The delinquents also become vulnerable to abuse by adults because they are likely to be out late at night and because they don't want to involve the police."
The friends they victimise may retaliate and take revenge.
Attempts to predict the risk of certain children becoming offenders have attracted much criticism in the past. But Professor Smith argued: "I see no problem in identifying anyone who is at risk of being a victim and of providing them with help and support."
Malcolm Schaffer, reporter manager for the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration in the east of Scotland, said: "The study has shown what is a significant cause of offending behaviour - and the power of the peer group. We have to take that on board. Schools, police and community and social workers have to work together to find ways of intervening before cases come in front of the children's panels."
Alan McLean, principal educational psychologist for Glasgow, said: "It is not surprising that victimisation and delinquency are reciprocal. Being a victim reflects low peer group status. Delinquency raises that status and the child's place in the pecking order."
Mr McLean added: "Schools have an important role to play in breaking the cycle which, if unchecked, can spill in from the community into the playground and the classroom. Schools should become mediators and provide children with a haven."
Mr McLean is currently leading a city-wide review of pupil and teacher support programmes aimed at motivating disaffected pupils. "We need to look at services on a universal basis - and, where possible, use community school structures," he said.