When students must walk through crime-ridden streets on their way to school in Baltimore, it’s more likely that they will be absent, according to a new study from the Johns Hopkins University.
Researchers found that Baltimore students who commute through areas with double the city’s average amount of crime are 6 percent more likely to miss school. Their findings point to another way the city’s unrelenting violence disrupts children’s educations.
“Having to travel through dangerous streets is leading kids to miss school,” said Johns Hopkins sociologist Julia Burdick-Will, the study’s lead author. “Not showing up for school has important academic consequences and students who must prioritize their own personal safety over attendance have a clear disadvantage.”
The Hopkins researchers’ findings were published Wednesday in the Sociological Science journal.
Chronic absenteeism is linked to lower academic achievement and a higher risk of dropping out. Baltimore has the state’s highest rate of chronic absenteeism: 37 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of school last year.
A child might miss school, Burdick-Will hypothesized, because their ride fell through and their walk to the bus stop is seen as too dangerous. Or because someone was shot near their usual bus stop and it no longer feels safe to wait there in the early-morning dark.
The research team modeled the most efficient routes to school using public transportation for 4,200 first-time freshman in Baltimore public high schools — essentially the path Google Maps would instruct them to take, Burdick-Will said. The researchers then linked those routes with Baltimore Police Department crime data.
They found that students whose best route required walking or waiting for a bus in areas with higher violent crime rates had higher rates of absenteeism throughout the year. More crime-ridden routes led to proportionately more absenteeism.
Baltimore has universal high school choice, meaning there are no assigned neighborhood schools and all students must select high schools through a choice process in eighth grade. High schoolers as young as 14 years old are criss-crossing the city every morning.
The city doesn’t have a traditional yellow bus fleet for older students. High school and middle school students who live more than 1.5 miles from their school receive a One Card for use on the public transit system.
The amount of crime linked to areas where schoolchildren live and learn was astounding, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers: The average student went to school in a neighborhood where about 87 violent crimes were reported during the academic year, and lived in a neighborhood where about 95 violent crimes happened during the same time period.
The relationship between a child’s exposure to violent areas on their way to school and absenteeism provides valuable insight, researchers say, into the way urban violence affects educational outcomes.
Burdick-Will said her team wanted to bring attention to the problem so educators can be more aware of the obstacles children face just getting to school each day. It shows the ripple effect that Baltimore’s violence — the city has seen more than 300 homicides in each of the last four years — has on children.
“It has impact,” she said, “on the whole social system of the city.”