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How Segregated Schools Drive Criminal Behaviors

Segregated schools are producing higher levels of criminal networking and behavior among students.
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(Photo: Don Harder/Flickr)

(Photo: Don Harder/Flickr)

Over the last 25 years, the racial and economic composition of American schools has changed, and not for the better. According to a 2012 report from the University of California–Los Angeles' Civil Rights Project, 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where 90 percent of the student body is non-white. Today, the average black and Latino student is enrolled in a school where almost two-thirds of their classmates are low-income; 15 years ago, the average black or Latino student attended a school where approximately half of their fellow students were low-income. The average white student, meanwhile, attends a school where only 37 percent of their fellow students are low-income.

A new working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests the consequences of the re-segregation of American schools extend beyond the classroom. The paper looks to North Carolina for evidence, where, in 2002, under a court order, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district eliminated its school busing program, which had been in place since 1971 and had effectively desegregated the area's schools. As a result, the city's school boundaries were dramatically re-drawn and half of the district's students were assigned to a new school.

Authors Stephen Billings, David Deming, and Stephen Ross utilized this change to analyze the effects of more segregated schools on criminal activity. Their findings are grim: Not only does "concentrating disadvantaged youth together in the same school and neighborhoods" increase total crime in the area; it also increases the likelihood that the disadvantaged students will commit crimes together. These heavily segregated schools are, in effect, serving as criminal matchmaking centers, in much the same way as juvenile detention centers.

Between 1991 and 2009, over 200 medium and large-sized districts in the United States were released from desegregation orders.

"Our findings suggest that neighborhood and school segregation itself may be partially responsible for high crime rates in disadvantaged urban areas," the authors write. "If concentrating disadvantaged youth together increases total crime, and if at least part of the mechanism is through the formation of criminal networks in school, then the only way to disrupt this endogenous process is to manipulate the location or school assignment of youth across settings."

In 2014, ProPublica, in collaboration with the New York Times, published a devastating account by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones on the causes and consequences of re-segregation in the South. Much of this re-segregation was driven by a series of Supreme Court decisions over the last 25 years that released school districts from the desegregation orders, and federal oversight that required districts to actively maintain desegregated schools via busing or other methods. Between 1991 and 2009, over 200 medium and large-sized districts in the United States were released from desegregation orders. In the absence of court oversight, according to research from Stanford University's Center for Education Policy Analysis, "racial school segregation in these districts increased gradually following release from court order, relative to the trends in segregation in districts remaining under court order."

The Great Recession may have exacerbated the trend. Residential segregation has been gradually declining in America, but a paper published last year in the American Sociological Review (and reported on by Nathan Collins) suggests that the foreclosure crisis, which disproportionately affected minority and racially integrated neighborhoods, changed migration patterns in a way that worsened residential segregation. Foreclosed-upon minorities, many of whom lived in racially integrated neighborhoods, moved to more segregated, distressed neighborhoods, while white residents of affected neighborhoods fled to neighborhoods less affected by the crisis. The researchers of the American Sociological Review report estimate that foreclosure trends increased segregation "between Latinos and whites by nearly 50 percent and between blacks and whites by about 20 percent as whites abandoned and minorities moved into areas most heavily distressed by foreclosures."

These recent trends in residential and educational segregation represent an enormous, disappointing step backwards for minority students. The desegregation of American schools in the South throughout the 1960s and '70s produced enormous educational gains for black students. According to University of California–Berkeley professor Rucker Johnson, school desegregation "significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status."

Researchers are still evaluating the effects of the recent re-segregation of schools in the South, but the evidence so far indicates that it has, unsurprisingly, produced the opposite result. An older paper by Billings, Deming, and Jonah Rockoff found that, after Charlotte ended its busing program, test scores, high school graduation rates, and four-year college-attendance rates all declined, while crime rates among minority males increased. Such drastic effects led the authors to conclude with some certainty that "the end of race-based busing widened racial inequality, despite efforts by CMS to mitigate the impact of segregation through compensatory resource allocation."

This most recent research indicates that segregated schools are producing yet another negative effect: higher levels of criminal networking and behavior among students.