Students whose school commutes force them to walk through or wait in violent neighborhoods are more likely to miss school, finds a new study.
Like many large districts, Baltimore has been struggling with both chronic absenteeism and student-transportation problems for years, complicated by its open school enrollment. While elementary students are bused by the district, middle and high schoolers receive vouchers for public transportation, and prior studies have found longer commutes are associated with higher absenteeism. But a new study in the journal Sociological Science suggests commute safety, not just total time, plays a role in whether students get to school.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, mapped the most efficient routes to and from school for 4,200 first-time 9th graders in Baltimore public schools in 2014-15. Then they overlaid police data on the numbers of violent crimes—such as assaults, robberies, and murders—as well as nonviolent crimes—like drug sales and property damage.
Only 8 percent of students lived within walking distance of their schools. Nearly 70 percent of students used public transportation to get to school, traveling a little more than a half hour on average each way. But a significant portion of students traveled an hour or more, with multiple transfers in which students had to wait or walk to a different stop to catch the new bus. Several major transit hubs for students also had high rates of violent crime.
The researchers found that as violent crime increased in areas where students walked or waited for a bus, their attendance dropped. A doubling of the incidents of violent crime was associated with 6 percent higher student absenteeism—roughly an additional day missed for each student per year.
Julia Burdick-Will, the lead author of the study, noted that because the number of individual crimes is relatively low at any given bus stop, it’s not that hard for students to face a sudden doubling of violent incidents during the school year.
“I’ve taken the bus a lot in Baltimore—I take it to work every day—and there are particular issues around bus stops,” Burdick-Will said. “If an altercation between two people escalates quickly, there’s nowhere to go. ... It feels physically scary, because ... there’s an unpredictability to it.”
Students were not more likely to miss school if their commute passed through a violent area but they did not get off the bus, or if they had to wait in an area with high drug or property crime but not violent crime. Moreover, the effect of violent crime on attendance was the same regardless of how safe the student’s own neighborhood was, or whether the student was attending his first choice of school.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Safe Commute = Better Attendance