Schools as places of crime
Underperforming public schools have long been associated with higher levels of crime, but it is unclear whether the schools or the building and areas surrounding the schools are the cause of the higher crime. Concerns of vacant buildings as places of crime has also gained attention and may be one reason why some may argue against closing schools. However, neighborhoods where large schools are located often have higher crime rates and those rates are higher during school days. To date, there is a shortage of research on whether and how underperforming schools affect crime rates in the neighborhoods around those schools.
Benjamin Ukert, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, joined a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a postdoctoral fellow, to address this shortage. Their research was recently named one of the top five best education research studies of 2019 by the Washington, D.C. based Thomas B. Fordham Institute. The study was published in Regional Science and Urban Economics and analyzed crime data in different census blocks in Philadelphia following the closing of 29 academically underperforming schools between 2011 and 2013. These schools had the lowest academic performances and had students with worse behavior than the statewide average.
Ukert and his colleagues compared changes in rates of total crime, violent crime and property crime in census blocks where schools closed to rates in blocks with no schools and blocks with schools that stayed open. They also analyzed crime rate changes based on the grade levels of each school (high schools and elementary schools) and during days and hours schools were in session. Additionally, the researchers estimated how crime might have been displaced by focusing on census blocks where students from closed schools were attending school after the closures.
The researchers considered demographic and economic factors such as race, ethnicity and household income, school-level factors such as enrollment and proportion of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, and information on school behavioral issues such as arrests, suspensions and truancy.
“We found that the closed schools prior to closing had lower enrollment, a larger proportion of students receiving free or reduced-priced lunch, lower academic performance, and higher arrest rates, truancy rates and suspensions compared to other schools. Crime rates in census blocks containing schools were higher than those without, and those with underperforming schools had the highest crime rates,” Ukert said.
“Blocks containing closed schools saw their average crime rate decrease by nearly 15 percent and almost half of that decrease was due to a reduction in violent crime,” he added.
High schools had a larger decrease than elementary schools, likely due to the age difference of the students as criminality tends to peak in adolescence. Nearly all of the crime reductions were concentrated between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays, with no notable changes seen during non-school session hours. The findings indicate that moving students out of neighborhoods by closing schools is more likely to be a factor in crime than a vacant building attracting crime. Ukert and his colleagues also found that crime rates increased in the census blocks to which students from underperforming schools were relocated; however, the increases were smaller than the decrease in the blocks where schools were closed, leading to a net decrease in crime. There was also no notable change in total crime rates in neighborhoods adjacent to blocks containing closed schools, and property crime in the neighboring blocks decreased somewhat. This indicates that the effects of underperforming schools were highly localized.
“The research findings show that underperforming schools are linked to increased crime rates and that closing such schools disrupts the interaction of potential victims and criminals that appears to be a key factor in criminality,” Ukert said. “These results also indicate that concerns that closing schools would lead to increased crime due to the presence of vacant buildings and reduced police presence did not materialize.”
The net reduction in crime found in this study shows that policy efforts aimed at moving students away from chronically underperforming schools can decrease crime rates and may improve educational opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.