How Crime-Prone Students Worsen Educational Outcomes for Everyone

Exposure to crime-prone students in school has “large and significant” effects on test scores, school discipline and even adult criminal behavior, finds a new study by Stephen B. Billings and Mark Hoekstra published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Exposure to crime-prone peers in the same neighborhood also has an effect, but the negative influence is far stronger in the school setting.

“We estimate that a five percentage point increase in school and neighborhood crime-prone peers increases arrest rates at age 19-21 by 6.5 and 2.6 percent respectively,” state the authors in “Schools Neighborhoods, and the Long-Run Effect of Crime-Prone Peers.” 

Billings and Hoekstra stick to the narrow issue of establishing the correlation between “crime-prone peers” and students’ cognitive and behavioral outcomes, but the study is sure to influence the debate over school disciplinary policies. If students displaying anti-social behavior are kept in school as part of the therapeutic disciplinary regime now in vogue, one can predict negative spillover effects on fellow students.

The authors synthesize databases from the educational system and criminal justice system of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County and base their conclusions on children born between 1989 and 1994. The data include school crimes, days absent and suspended, school dropouts,  standardized test scores, and adult arrests as well as standard demographic data. Half the population sample was black or Hispanic — presumably, the other half was white and Asian — but the authors did not explore the role of race.

States the study:

Effects on antisocial behavior at the school level are driven by increases in school crimes (9.9 percent increase), while effects of neighborhood peers are strongest on high school dropout (3.9 percent increase. Most importantly, results indicate the exposure to crime-prone peers leads to long-run effects on crime, even at ages 19 to 21 after everyone is out of school. We estimate that a similar increase in the share of crime-prone school peers results in a 6.5 percent increase in the probability of being arrested, and a 4.5 increase in days incarcerated. …

Our results have important implications. … These findings highlight the importance of childhood peers in shaping socially deviant behavior years later, even into adulthood. This is especially important given the persistence of criminal behavior in adulthood.

Billings and Hoekstra draw restrained public policy conclusions: “Perhaps more emphasis should be put on schools as the policy-relevant factor when considering how policies that change neighborhoods can affect children’s cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes,.”

Bacon’s bottom line: These findings are highly relevant to the debate over education policy in Virginia, which is increasingly driven by social justice considerations. African-American students are punished for disciplinary infractions in schools at a disproportionate rate with referrals to the police, suspensions and other sanctions. The conventional wisdom is that this pattern reflects structural racism and that the solution is to implement a restorative justice approach to disciplinary problems.

In my commentary on restorative justice, I have focused on the deleterious effect the policies have on classroom discipline and the negative outcomes for students who don’t disrupt classes. What I have neglected to consider is the peer effects that crime-prone children have upon their fellow students. Insofar as crime-prone students are perceived as escaping consequences for violence, defiance and other disorderly behavior, they could well have negative impacts on other students that transcend disorderly classrooms. Of course, none of these possibilities are considered by the ideologues driving change in Virginia schools.

Informed by the Billings-Hoekstra findings, people who care about public schools and racial equity should be attuned to possible unintended consequences. I would  hypothesize the following, to be confirmed or falsified by real-world data as it becomes available: Insofar as the restorative justice approach to discipline succeeds in keeping trouble-makers in school, test scores in schools with large number of crime-prone students will decline and arrests of former students as adults will rise. I would predict that dropout rates will increase, except the intense pressure to make the new policies appear to be a success could lead to even more widespread cheating and gaming of the system. One easy prediction: Racial disparities in educational outcomes will widen.

I am humble enough to admit that I may be wrong. I await the data to confirm or falsify my conjectures. Unfortunately, I see no sign that Virginia’s educational elites and social engineers share my humility. The ideologically driven elites imposing restorative justice upon Virginia schools have no skin in the game. Most of them send their children to suburban or private schools, not schools were discipline might be  undermined, thus insulating them if their theories have unintended consequences. If the restorative-justice experiment goes astray, as I fear it will, those who suffer will be minorities and the poor.

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4 responses to “How Crime-Prone Students Worsen Educational Outcomes for Everyone”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t put much stock in their “study” to be honest but if it gets replicated by other credible researchers, I’ll re-consider.

    A lot of what NBER does is partisan and weak on legitimate data, IMHO.

    Beyond that, the LAW REQUIRES that each kid attend school AND that measures be taken for various behaviors which they do including separating some from the regular student population.

    But the biggest problem with this continuing narrative is that you have no solution. You’re basically advocating getting them out of schools and essentially abandoning them to the streets – a typical conservative approach to difficult problems – just run away from it.

    No, you do not say that straight out – it’s wrapped in vague words and phrases but that’s the essence to me without more specifics.

    Basically you seem to disagree with the current public school system approach to the problem and you have almost zero real experience with the problem other than your own philosophy and the mostly Conservative tomes you read to be “informed”.

    I’m sorry. I do not mean to sound so harsh but this goes on here over and over and it follow the same theme of using bomb-throwing words like “social justice” and similar that is all the rage in conservative media and while they go on and on about the problem and their perceptions of it – their “solutions” are actually to support and advocate the school-to-prison pipeline…

    Make no mistake – none at all – if you have a person whether they be 25, or 18, or 13 and they physically threaten others or bully or assault them – I advocate discipline – strong discipline, including suspension and expulsion but when you do this – you finish the job of making them a criminal – a felon – someone who does not get a job and pay taxes ,etc and how many like that do we really want in our society?

    It’s HARD. The public school system has a very difficult job and NO – private schools are not going to fix this either – they DON’T want these kids either! But the law requires public schools to take them and the bottom line here is that you just disagree with the approach they are taking – monolithically – across the board – you seem to basically impugn the public school system approach to this problem.

    I see no ” they ought to be doing this instead” or ” some schools do it right, here’s a couple”. Nope. It’s all bad , all “social justice” stuff –

    come on – I think you can do better than this. This is not a way to a better outcome.

    1. The “solution,” Larry is to find alternative ways of educating troublesome students. But that conversation can’t even begin until we acknowledge the folly of our current course of action.

      Don’t you ever get tired of defending a failing status quo?

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        That “solution” is available right now at thousands of different schools. Are you saying that NONE of them do it different or which ones do and what the results are?

        I don’t defend the status quo but I do expect those who say it has failed to do MORE than just claim failure. They have to show what is “better” and they can’t be claiming that no where is it better – that everyone it fails.

        It’s just a one trick pony from those who say that public schools “fail” at various things – academic and discipline with scant evidence in real numbers.. it’s a belief – with NO alternative proposals – “what we should be doing instead”.

        It’s basically a perspective that all public education “fails” at discipline because they’ve all converted to a social justice system.

        Good Lord! All schools ? none do it different with better/worse results? Oh wait… we’re really not after that kind of narrative, right?

  2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    Is this is a waste of time? What does this study tell us that we did not know? Should we take to the streets instead? Is more talk futile?

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