The Effects of Police Violence on Inner-City Students

Desmond_AngHarvard Kennedy School's Dr. Desmond Ang, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, discusses research findings with SDP. 

Use of force is a well-established part of American law enforcement. Roughly a thousand individuals are killed by police each year, a statistic with major ramifications for not only the individuals killed and their families but also for the students in the surrounding communities. Attitudes toward and trust in police fracture in response to police violence, and in the U.S., these fractures often occur along racial lines, disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic students both in and out of the classroom.

Desmond Ang, Assistant Professor of Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, recently examined and documented the racially-disparate impacts of police violence on students and discussed his findings in a webinar with SDP. While his research contributes to the acute conversation fueling the recent riots and protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ang’s work speaks to the broader issue of policing and police violence that has been a constant fixture in U.S. history. “This isn’t a new issue,” reminded Ang. “While the killings of people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are top of mind, we saw protests of the killings of Michael Brown in 2014 and Rodney King in the 90s, and the Watts riots happened back in the 1960s.”

When someone is killed by police, the impact of that loss of life radiates beyond the individual killed and their family to those who knew them, lived near them, and look like them—specifically in Black and Hispanic communities. “The research shows that Black and Hispanic communities are negatively impacted disproportionate to their White or Asian counterparts,” reported Ang. And because 80% of the deaths examined in this study went unreported in local newspapers, that impact can be measured spatially, most impacting those students who live within half a mile of the killing.

Measuring Student Impact

Ang’s work measures the short-, medium-, and long-term effects of police killings on a community’s students by looking at such things as attendance, GPA, and likelihood of graduating and enrolling in college. “In the short term,” continued Ang, “the main credible data we can look at to track day-to-day change is that of attendance.” If students are affected by police killings, one might expect to see changes in attendance in the days following the events. Sure enough, this research revealed that while rates of absenteeism in the week preceding a killing were relatively flat, absenteeism spiked among students living within a half a mile of a killing in the week following the event.

This immediate impact swells into the medium- and long-term through increases in psychological trauma diagnoses, GPA reduction, and dips in the rates of both high school graduation and college enrollment. The research estimated that each police killing in the county studied led three additional students of color to drop out of high school, a 1.5% point reduction. The study also identified an 8-15% increase in diagnoses of emotional disturbance and a 2-4% decrease in GPA that persists for several semesters.

“The short-term upticks in attendance are the most credible way to measure direct impact on a granular level,” said Ang. “It does become harder to say that the killings caused the dips in graduation or college enrollment rates. But it’s helpful to look at each of these data sets to lay out a credible sequence of events that lays out the narrative of impact on these students.”

Perceptions of Injustice

A key facet of this research is the difference in impact between Black/Hispanic communities and White/Asian communities. Race in this study was the single strongest factor in the extent to which people trust the police, likely because Black and Hispanic people are policed differently. And the effects aren’t simply related to the exposure to violence. When Ang compared police killings specifically to exposure to criminal homicides, for example, the impact of exposure to police killings on GPA were twice that as exposure to criminal homicide.

Perceptions of injustice were also key to the study’s findings. Ang’s methods accounted for the perceived “reasonableness” of the force used by police. Killings in which the suspects were armed with a gun and fired on others produced insignificant effects on student GPA. “ It really is only minorities that are responding to these events in terms of GPA being negatively affected,” Ang explained. “These effects seem to be heightened when the police kill someone that didn't seem like they were a threat to the community. This suggests that the effects are not simply driven by exposure to violent trauma, but also by perceptions of injustice.”

Quantifying the Educational Impact of Police Killings

Traditionally, events of policing and police violence have largely been studied through the lens of crime. “There’s been a lot of concern, especially from underrepresented minority communities,” continued Ang. “It’s about engagement with the government and the purpose and intent of policing in general. For any discussion of policing in public forums, we need to be thinking through the full gamut of positive and negative effects of policing on communities.”

Ang’s research shifts the focus of this kind of social research from a framework of crime to a framework of policing. As this work shows, the effects of police violence on previously silenced minority populations is amplified compared to other kinds of violence. Viewing police institutions as active participants instead of as passive actors in the dimension of crime allows educators and leaders a fuller view into the experience of policing in their communities.

So what are educators to do? In light of this research, school systems can prepare specific interventions to address the acute and long-term needs of students exposed to police violence. Since absenteeism is the first symptom of this issue, leaders can design specific outreach to absent students. Additional psychological and social and emotional learning (SEL) supports can also be incorporated throughout the system. And those interested in gaining a larger understanding of the issue of police violence in their area can either search for or request police reports as Ang did. All of these actions can work together to create a greater acknowledgement of the trauma that comes with police violence.

Watch the full video of Ang’s presentation of findings here.