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Study: Police killings traumatize high school students and hurt academic performance

State violence against unarmed minorities has four times the impact of other homicides.

Public Memorial For George Floyd Held In Houston
Joshua Broussard kneels in front of a mural honoring George Floyd on June 8, 2020, in Houston, where Floyd grew up.
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Police killings have a social and psychological significance beyond their sheer numbers, since law enforcement officers occupy a unique role as agents of the state authorized to wield force on domestic soil. New research from Desmond Ang, an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, suggests the impact extends to the academic performance of black and Hispanic children.

It’s been well established that nonwhite Americans have considerably less confidence in the police. Qualitative work from the 1968 Kerner Commission and onward has shown that police misconduct is a major driver of broader feelings of social alienation. But it’s generally challenging to quantify the effects of police violence on a given community, as police killings tend to happen in neighborhoods with high crime rates and other social challenges that make it difficult to precisely isolate the impact of the killing itself.

Ang got his hands on detailed information about every high school student from 2002 through 2016 in “a large urban school district in the Southwest,” as well as data on “officer-involved killings in the surrounding county.” After coding the exact location of each officer-involved killing, he was able to calculate the exact distance between every student’s home and where the incident took place.

Nearly 80 percent of police killings were not even mentioned in local newspapers, according to Ang, suggesting that awareness of the event could be limited to friends and family of the person killed, those who witnessed the event and its immediate aftermath, or those who heard about it from family members and neighbors.

Consistent with that theory, he finds a whole bunch of interesting things:

  • In the days immediately after a police killing, students miss school in higher numbers, with larger effects for those who lived closer to the incident. The effect on school attendance start to dissipate at half a mile away.
  • Students living within 0.5 miles of a police killing experience GPA declines of up to 0.08 standard deviations, meaning their grades start to suffer. Each killing affects an average of more than 300 students.
  • Exposed students, defined as those living within half a mile of a police killing, are 15 percent more likely to be diagnosed with emotional disturbance and “twice as likely to report feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods the following year,” Ang writes.
  • Students exposed to police killings in ninth grade are 3.5 percent less likely to graduate and 2.5 percent less likely to enroll in college, with similar — albeit smaller — effects on students in 10th or 11th grade.
  • These effects are driven entirely by black and Latino students responding to the deaths of “other underrepresented minorities.” Police killings have no statistically significant impact on white or Asian students regardless of who was killed, and killings of white or Asian civilians have no significant impact on students of any race.
  • Police killings of unarmed people have roughly double the impact of killings of armed suspects.
  • Criminal homicides, by contrast, have half the impact of police killings, and the impact does not shift according to the race of the victim.

There are many more criminal homicides than police killings in the US, so the traumatizing effects of those homicides on high school students are likely larger in aggregate. But the basic findings here — that the per-incident impact of police killings is unusually large, and that police killings of unarmed subjects in particular have a much larger negative impact compared with that of criminal homicide victims — seems to confirm that these incidents have a special and racialized significance in American life.

Fear and trauma are never pleasant for children, but there is a particular form of trauma — and a loss of social legitimacy — associated with police officers killing people that has a marked and quantifiable impact.

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