Education: Did the 2013 School Closures Lead to Increased Youth Violence?

Fairhill Elementary
Fairhill Elementary, at 601 West Somerset St., remains vacant today.

Text by Michala Butler. Image by Kendra Franklin.

When the School District of Philadelphia closed 24 schools in 2013, the average student faced an increased commute of around one-quarter of a mile. But some had much greater journeys.

For instance, those who attended Pepper Middle School were moved 2.4 miles away to the nearest school. Those who attended Sheridan West Middle School were forced to travel up to an extra 2.7 miles. 

The intention of the District of Philadelphia was to cut expenditures, close budget gaps and make the school system more efficient. Instead, this decision increased obstacles and exposed more students to potential violence and criminal activity across the city. 

Several youth violence experts stated that traveling to a new school has discouraged students from attending, decreased achievement rates and has raised the possibility of them passing through neighborhood gangs or groups involved in illegal activity. 

“Increased travel distances between the school and students’ homes sends a message that the city does not care about the hurdles they have to go through in order to get to school,” said Jeffery Abramowitz, the CEO of the Petey Greene Program. “Thoughts that often occur in student’s minds are, ‘If administration does not take my well-being into consideration, why do I have to care about my actions within the community?’” 

Between 2013 to 2023, there has been a sharp uptick in youth crime involving gun violence in Philadelphia. According to the Philadelphia Police, in 2013, there were 248 fatal shooting victims with about 52 percent of the shooters between the ages of 18 to 34. In 2022, there were 516 year-end homicide victims in 2022 with 48 percent of the shooters between the ages of 18 to 30.  

Youth violence and urban neighborhood experts believe that the school system and lack of services plays a large role in the increase of youth gun violence. They have found that students who are less engaged in school are more likely to become involved in delinquent and criminal activity.  

An everyday trek to school  

The research presented by John MacDonald, a University of Pennsylvania professor of Criminology and Sociology, and Matthew Steinberg, an assistant professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, emphasizes the fact that the achievement of students attending receiving-schools was negatively affected by the receipt of displaced students.

School absences significantly increased for the students who were displaced following the closures. Displaced students also received more suspension days the farther they traveled to their new school following the closure. 

Yellow Bus Transportation is typically provided for students grades 1 through 6 who live 1.5 miles or more from their assigned school. However, between the schools that shut down, the majority of students are unable to take Yellow Bus Transportation because their distance does not meet the requirement.  

Students grades 7 through 12 who live 1.5 miles or farther from school are eligible for free student TransPasses, which still leads to these students traveling in an unstructured or unmonitored manner.  

“For many students,” added Abramowitz, “they are already going through a number of hurdles to get to school, which may include things such as feeding their families, taking care of their siblings or dealing with their parents who are involved in the criminal system themselves.” 

With some students traveling more than 2 miles to school, this may lead to the belief that education is not that important to them due to the message that the administration is sending.  

“When students stop believing in education, they begin to think about what else they could be doing,” Abramowitz expressed. “This often leads to dropping out of school to sell drugs, starting a gang or becoming involved in gun violence.” 

With an increased distance comes more exposure to criminal activity throughout the different neighborhoods.  

“As the students walk by, they are seeing young men who are flashing around money they have gotten through illegal activity,” said Steinberg. “Then they start to think that the only way they are going to be able to make that amount of money is through joining in. There is such a high rate of unemployment among people in Philadelphia that it is normal for these students to be influenced by those people.” 

The school to prison pipeline? 

“The younger generation are being incarcerated at alarming rates,” Maurice Jones, General Manager of PAR-Recycle Works said. “The carceral system is built to tear down Black and brown families. What is happening is historical because many of these students see themselves being locked up just like their own family members, friends, peers or neighbors and don’t see a way out for themselves.”  

Between January 1 to April 10, 2023, there were 298 shooting victims in the city of Philadelphia between the ages of 12 and 34, which are the largest percent of individuals involved in gun violence.  

The age of students who need to be provided with services and education on gun violence has gotten younger. Approaching students about this topic in high school is too late, Jones said. They must be spoken to in middle school. 

“The school to prison pipeline is real,” he added. “I think that many of these inner-city schools look like preparation for prison, with metal detectors and police officers. This is creating pushback between the students and the administration.” 

Many students in the School District of Philadelphia are falling behind in math and reading. According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Philadelphia schools are near the bottom when it comes to academic performance.  

The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress found a significant drop in math scores for 4th and 8th graders since the last tests in 2019. It was the largest decline in math since testing began in 1990.  

“Teachers are tasked with providing information but if 15 of the 35 students in the classroom are behind, how do you get them to that standard,” Jones said. “These issues stem down from administration and parenting. When parents aren’t helping at home and administration is not providing services, students will fall behind and lose site of the importance of education.” 

The environment that many students are facing within the walls of these schools also has a major influence on their mental health.  

“It might not even be that there is violence breaking out in the schools, but it is just the simple chaos of overcrowding and the physical building,” said Caterina Roman, a Temple University professor and expert on violence, crime and neighborhoods. “There are not a lot of resources to improve classrooms. Students just feel disrespected and forgotten about.” 

Even if students love school and are trying to do well, the disarray and deterioration of the physical infrastructure sends the message that the District doesn’t care. 

Youth gun violence in Philadelphia 

In the decade since the 24 public schools were closed, youth gun violence has increased, with the most significant rise beginning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study completed by Boston University professors Jonathan Jay, Rachel Martin and Manish Patel. Violence has disproportionately impacted Black, Hispanic and Asian children 18-years or younger 100 times more than usual in the nation’s largest cities, including Philadelphia.  

The researchers performed a study of shootings involving minors under 18 between January 2015 and December 2021. There were 2,672 from Philadelphia, New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago and 1,899 were Black children, including 928 from Philadelphia.  

MacDonald said there are too many school-age students who are involved in or have been affected by crimes due to the sheer prevalence and stockpile of guns in Philadelphia.  

“People are now storing guns on vacant lots throughout the city and are renting out guns to juveniles and young adults,” MacDonald said. “Someone can pay $25 and borrow a gun for the day.” 

There are very few places where young people can go learn to mediate, so they too often pull out guns and take situations into their own hands, Abramowitz stated.

“Without structure and going to school,” he explained, “they are not learning ways to solve these small issues that turn into them thinking they need a gun to resolve it.” 

It is difficult for administrators and the city to respond to what is going on with students when it comes to gun violence because guns are so easily accessible, said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Temple University.

“Philadelphia will not be able to prevent violent crime from reoccurring unless they are able to target and get control of the people who are using or selling lethal weapons,” he stated. 

The less students are engaged in school, the more likely they are to be involved in delinquent and criminal activity.  

“When you start to close schools, it makes it even more difficult for students to attend, which leads to being unsupervised and spending more time on the streets during school hours,” Steinberg explained. “Keeping kids in school gives them an educational purpose in a monitored setting, which in itself is going to prevent criminal behavior.” 

Cities across the nation have enforced nightly curfews to prevent the likelihood of youth becoming involved in the crime scene.  

“Positive results from a curfew depend on the resources that the city or jurisdiction is putting into place,” mentioned Roman. “You must think if you want your police officers going around and picking up youth who might not be the ones involved in perpetrating violence. This oftentimes has led to the victimization of Black young adults over the actual curfew age, and more towards 18 to 24-year olds.” 

Young Philadelphians will not be able to break the cycle of violence without the resources to do so, advocates stated.

“Working with individuals who are coming straight out of the criminal justice system, I see a direct correlation between the school system and crime rates,” Jones said. “When a student sees a neighborhood school close that has been there for 30 to 40 years, they see a lack of regard for the neighborhood itself.” 

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