Study: School Shootings Shatter Communities

In a first-of-its-kind study, TSPPPA’s Lang (Kate) Yang uncovered the hidden toll of decades of school shootings as higher-income families move away from communities struggling with stigma.
June 10, 2021
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Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration Lang (Kate) Yang co-authored a first-of-its kind study of the impact of school shootings on communities.

The decades-long plague of school shootings in America has left survivors traumatized and families devastated. Now a new study co-authored by Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration Lang (Kate) Yang reveals the hidden toll these tragedies take on communities.

In a first-of-its kind examination of the 210 shootings that occurred on public school campuses between 1999 and 2018, the study discovered that these incidents were followed by higher-income families moving away, causing declines in enrollment and leaving schools and the communities surrounding them poorer, more segregated and branded with stigma.

The families’ flights occurred even though the incidents were followed by significant per-pupil spending increases and no noticeable rise in community-wide violence. The drops in enrollment may also lead to a downward spiral that harms students who remain in affected communities for years to come, the researchers said.

Despite the increased school funding, “campus shootings reduce the desirability of the community and lead to the exit of relatively well-off families,” Yang said. “That is an understandable and natural response to a traumatic event, but it's not necessarily rational. Campus shootings are largely isolated events. They don’t predict future violence. Yet there is clearly a stigma associated with them.”

Yang and co-author Maithreyi Gopalan, an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, analyzed school shootings in all 50 states—gun violence that affected approximately 215,000 students. The researchers found drops in both public and private school enrollments that continued for at least 10 years after the shooting.

At the same time, they noted that per-pupil spending rose by an average of $248, mainly funded by the federal government and debt. The additional money was largely directed toward student support services and capital projects, such as mental health and attendance support.

But the spending did not divert resources from instructional programs, Yang emphasized. “There is an increased investment on the well-being of the students—not just their academic performance, but their general well-being," she said. “But it does not crowd out instructional spending.”

Past school shooting studies have largely focused on their negative effects on student outcomes. But research regarding the impact of shootings on school resources, spending and student composition is “virtually nonexistent,” Yang noted. In addition to factors like psychological shock, Yang said low test scores may also be related to the consequences of families moving away, including high-achieving students leaving school districts and a lack of peer support for the students who remain.

The researchers examined numerous community level statistics, including median household income, property tax bases and crime rates. “We wanted to paint a comprehensive picture about the schools and communities,” Yang said. Their findings suggest that school shootings could bring socioeconomic changes to the community over the long run as higher-income families depart and school resources dwindle. As federal funding levels decreased, some school districts were also left with higher debt, the study noted. “We are asking if campus shootings are a vicious circle where more well-off people leave and the ones who remain are going to see high poverty and less investment in their schools down the road,” Yang said.

The authors highlighted the need for federal support to go beyond addressing violence prevention and school safety and to also focus on student support services and community outreach to mitigate the departure of families due to the stigma associated with campus shootings.

“Policymakers and administrators must confront the difficult task of improving community perception of the safety and quality of schools post-shooting to avoid the pitfalls of yet another round of middle-class flight away from these schools,” Yang said.

Yang and Gopalan published the results of their study in the journal Education Finance and Policy.