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Want Students to Attend School Every Day? Make Sure They Feel Safe on the Way

Students whose school commutes force them to walk through or wait in violent neighborhoods are more likely to miss school, according to a new study.

Like many large districts, Baltimore has been struggling with both chronic absenteeism and student transportation problems for years, complicated by its open school enrollment. While elementary students are bussed by the district, middle and high schoolers receive vouchers for public transportation, and prior studies have found longer commutes are associated with higher absenteeism. But a new study in the journal Sociological Science suggests commute safety, not just total time, plays a role in whether students get to school.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University mapped the most efficient routes to and from school for 4,200 first-time 9th graders in Baltimore City public schools in 2014-15. Then they overlaid police data on the numbers of violent crimes—such as assaults, robberies, and murders—as well as non-violent crimes, like drug sales and property damage.

Only 8 percent of students lived within walking distance of their schools. Nearly 70 percent of students used public transportation to get to school, traveling a little more than a half hour on average each way. But a significant portion of students travelled an hour or more, with multiple transfers in which students had to wait or walk to a different stop to catch the new bus. As the chart below shows, several major transit hubs for students also had high rates of violent crime:

Unsafe bus stops in Baltimore.JPG

The researchers found that as violent crime increased in areas where students walked or waited for a bus, their attendance dropped. A doubling of the incidents of violent crime was associated with 6 percent higher student absenteeism—roughly an additional day missed for each student per year. Julia Burdick-Will, lead author of the study, noted that because the number of individual crimes is relatively low at any given bus stop, it's not that hard for students to face a sudden doubling of violent incidents during the school year. 

"I've taken the bus a lot in Baltimore—I take it to work every day—and there are particular issues around bus stops," Burdick-Will said. "If an altercation between two people escalates quickly, there's nowhere to go. ... It feels physically scary, because ... there's an unpredictability to it."

Interestingly, students were not more likely to miss school if their commute passed through a violent area but they did not get off the bus, or if they had to wait in an area with high drug or property crime but not violent crime. Moreover, the effect of violent crime on attendance was the same regardless of how safe the student's own neighborhood was, or whether the student was attending his first choice of school.

"It's hard to know why kids aren't going. They may be just fine and their parents are just protecting them and won't let them go out today because they've heard that something bad happened. Or they might be staying home because they are having the effects of trauma of play out—depression and even physical ailments," Burdick-Will said.

Looking for a Safer Path to School

While Burdick-Will and her colleagues calculated the most efficent route to school for each student, she cautioned that many students take longer routes to avoid high-crime areas. Doing so may help them avoid stress or danger on the way to school, but could increase their risk of absenteeism in other ways, if an alternate bus proves overcrowded or neighbor who gives a student rides gets sick. 

Back in 2013, a student documentary by the Student Attendance Work Group in Baltimore City found some students regularly faced two- or three-hour commutes, including multiple transfers and waits at bus stops before dawn and after dark:

The Baltimore Education Research Consortium found in a 2017 report that more than a third of the 13,000 students who used public transit often felt unsafe during their school commutes.

Edie House Foster, spokesperson for Baltimore City Public Schools, said the district was still discussing the study findings. "The safety of our young people is always our primary concern.  Our administrators and teaching staff are keenly aware of some of the obstacles our children encounter when traveling to and from school," House Foster said. "In addition to our district initiatives to address the transportation issues, we work collaboratively with community based organizations and city agencies to find solutions to the issues that make it challenging for our students to attend school regularly and on time."

Burdick-Will offered a few recommendations for district administrators to help students feel safer on their way to school:

  • Work with public transportation officials to include school schedules with work commutes in planning bus or train schedules. 
  • Train teachers and attendance officers to look for commuting difficulties when students miss school repeatedly, and incorporate transportation support into attendance plans.
  • Consider the safety and reliability of public transportation when considering districtwide plans to open school enrollment, site new schools, or cut school buses from budgets.
  • Help students get real-time transportation data, such as through an app, which can inform them of wait times at different stops.

"There's a lot of literature on adult commuting causing stress ... and shouldn't we expect to see the same thing for kids?," Burdick-Will said. "It can be really stressful to get where you need to go to school and especially if you know the principal and teachers are all going to yell at you for being late when it feels like it's not your fault the bus was slow or your ride fell through or something. We want kids to be able to get to school engaged and awake and not stressed out when they get to school to be able to learn things, not just be there."

Chart source: Julia Burdick-Will, Johns Hopkins University


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