School Climate & Safety

School Segregation Boosts Juvenile Crime in At-Risk Neighborhoods, Research Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 11, 2016 2 min read
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Segregating poor minority students in individual schools not only makes it harder for them to make the academic connections to get to college—it may make it easier for them to get involved in crime instead.

In “Partners in Crime,” a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, economists Stephen Billings of the University of North Carolina Charlotte, Stephen Ross of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, and David Deming of the Harvard Graduate School of Education linked school administrative data from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrest records.

They found concentrations of high-risk students living within a kilometer of each other don’t necessarily increase arrests in that area—unless the students also are assigned to the same school.

“It just adds to this avenue where [students] can interact more,” Billings said. “You can be in the same classes and maybe it’s a positive framework where you study together or do projects together, or maybe you both decide to skip or do something [delinquent] after school together.”

Students who lived within a kilometer from each other—walking distance to each others’ houses, and close enough that they would probably see each other at local stores and parks—were significantly more likely to be arrested together if they also attended the same school and grade.

Schools create deeper connections than neighborhoods

Students were not more likely to be arrested together if they attended school together but lived farther away, or if they were neighbors on opposite sides of an attendance boundary.

“People tend to have segmentations in friendships and networks,” Billings said. “The street in front of my house is an attendance boundary, and I didn’t even know my neighbors were there even though they were a half a block away and had kids the same age, because they went to a different school.”

The study is in line with other recent research showing concentrating high-risk young people can be detrimental; a 2009 study found increases in crime when young people with similar criminal backgrounds live together in the same juvenile-justice facility. And a separate study found students with friends who drop out of school are more likely to do so themselves.

Learning crime from the ‘cool kids’

The study did not analyze specific school policies or practices, but Billings said the results suggest schools play a critical role in how vulnerable students develop peer groups, for good or ill.

“Peers could matter because they actually get you to commit a crime with them, or it’s an initiation into some kind of gang ... but there are other ways peer effects could matter,” Billings said. “If I’m just a 15-year-old kid and I see these other kids doing bad activities and I think they are cool and I want to be like them, even if I don’t interact with them ... I could be more likely to commit a crime just through social learning.”

Broader socioeconomic integration in schools would help prevent juvenile criminal networks from forming, the researchers suggest, but Billings also noted that school leaders and educators should work to keep academically struggling or behaviorally difficult students from being bunched up together in a small number of classes, either.


A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.