As police shootings take the national spotlight, sparking reflection and discussion about racial equity, one researcher has released a study showing how the effects of those shootings seep into nearby schools and affect students’ learning. The report shows that police shootings, particularly when victims are unarmed, lower black and Latino students’ grades and the chances they’ll graduate from high school.
In a working paper released June 8, Desmond Ang, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, tracked students’ emotional well-being and college-enrollment rates along with their grades and graduation rates. He found that white and Asian students were unaffected by police shootings; the effects were borne by black and Latino students.
Ang tracked the effects of 627 officer-involved killings on 700,000 high school students in a large urban school district in the southwest. Using a database that contains students’ addresses and achievement data with data tracking officer-involved shootings in the surrounding county between July 2002 to June 2016, he was able to compare the effects on students who lived within a half-mile of a police shooting to the effects on those who lived in the same neighborhood, but a little farther away.
“While white and Asian students are unaffected by exposure to police killings, black and Hispanic students are strongly and negatively impacted by these events, particularly when they involve unarmed minorities,” Ang wrote in an article about his study in Education Next.
He estimated that each police shooting in the county he studied caused three students of color to drop out of high school. Ninth grade students who lived near officer-involved shootings were about 3.5 percent less likely to graduate from high school and 2.5 percent less likely to enroll in college, Ang found.
A shooting’s effects on students can last several semesters, according to Ang’s paper. The grade point averages of students who lived near a police shooting, for instance, dropped significantly right afterward, and even more the following semester, bouncing back only five semesters later.
The effects on students of police killings are small when the victim was armed, Ang wrote. When a victim was unarmed, however, the negative effects on students were twice as large. Those findings suggest, he wrote, that students’ reactions are deeply influenced by their experiences of injustice and discrimination.
“As we’ve witnessed in the wake of George Floyd, Michael Brown and countless other incidents before, police killings of unarmed minorities may be particularly traumatic because they arouse longstanding concerns about police misconduct and institutional racism,” Ang wrote in Education Next.
To assess the impact of police shootings on students’ mental health, Ang examined a portion of the district database that showed when students had been designated as “emotionally disturbed” or having a learning disability that can’t be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors. He also used students’ responses from a district survey administered in 2014-15 and 2015-16, which asked students about their feeling of safety in their schools and neighborhoods.
He found that students living near fatal police shootings were 15 percent more likely to be classified as having a chronic learning disability associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, and twice as likely to report feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods the following year.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.