How Do Police Killings Affect High School Students?

By Atheendar Venkataramani, MD, PHD
August 21, 2020

Atheendar Venkataramani is a physician and economist at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the 2021 Tradeoffs Research Council. His research focuses on health and socioeconomic inequality.

With the recent protests around the police killing of George Floyd, there has been increasing interest in how police killings affect the well-being of Black Americans. A new paper by Desmond Ang (which will soon be published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics) examines the insidious negative effects these events have on the communities in which they occur.

Ang used unprecedented, individual-level data from Los Angeles County on over 700,000 public high school students and 500 police killings between 2002 and 2015. These data allowed him to precisely assess whether students lived close by when a police killing occurred in their neighborhood. Ang then compared how students’ grades and emotional health changed before and after police killings in their neighborhood. To determine cause and effect, he compared these changes against students of different ages who lived in the same neighborhood, but who were not exposed to police killings during the time they were in school, and against students who were in school at the same time, but lived in similar neighborhoods that didn’t have a police killing.

Ang finds that students exposed to police killings in their immediate neighborhood experienced declines in their grade point averages and worse emotional health. The negative effects apply to only Black and Hispanic students and are largest for exposures to police killings of unarmed individuals. These findings are consistent with a growing body of work on the consequences of police violence for health and educational attainment. What is shocking, though, is that these effects persist for at least four semesters – and culminate with meaningful decreases in the likelihood of graduating high school and attending college.

Together, the findings indicate the critical importance of structural racism in affecting well-being over time. I am motivated by the fact that the same detailed data and methods used to identify the ways in which police violence harms well-being can also be used to design and test policies to both reduce the incidence of these events and mitigate their negative effects.

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