New Study: After School Shootings, Well-Off Families Flee and Enrollment Drops. Low-Income Kids are Left to Confront the Aftermath

Tyler Vielie walks past crosses memorializing the victims of the Columbine High School shooting 22 years after the 1999 tragedy in Colorado killed 14 students (including the gunmen) and one teacher. (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

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For more than a decade after the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in suburban Denver, Frank DeAngelis held a simple promise: He’d stay on as principal until every student class enrolled in the district during the attack reached the graduation stage.

Despite the community upheaval and media frenzy that followed the notorious massacre, DeAngelis kept his word, remaining as principal until his retirement in 2014. But new research suggests that many families take an opposite approach after a shooting tears apart a school community.

Instead, they flee.

After districts suffer school shootings, student enrollment plummets over the long term as wealthy families move away, according to the new report. The shift carries significant implications for schools and the communities they serve as districts become more socioeconomically segregated. The enrollment declines persisted even as districts shelled out millions of dollars on physical security and student supports like counselors and as educators assured families that the schools remained safe places to learn.

School shootings have a profound impact on the national political discourse and on the hundreds of thousands of children who’ve been terrorized by gun violence at schools since Columbine. Previous studies have found that school shootings are detrimental to students’ mental health and academic performance. The negative effects of school shootings are particularly acute in less affluent schools that serve large numbers of students of color and those from low-income households, where such tragedies are also more prevalent.

Gun violence at schools remains statistically rare and campuses have actually grown increasingly safe over the last several decades. Yet they drive policy debates around campus security, student mental health and gun control.

Frank DeAngelis, the retired principal of Columbine High School in suburban Denver, speaks during a 2019 remembrance service, 20 years after the mass shooting at his school. (Ason Connolly/AFP via Getty Images)

As better-off families flee, their departures could have a detrimental effect on the lower-income community members who are left behind, said report co-author Lang (Kate) Yang, assistant professor of public policy and public administration at The George Washington University. In the short term, students who experienced the tragedies are “going to lose some peer support,” as their classmates move away which could contribute to “the psychological stress the shootings have already caused,” she said. Since student test scores are strongly tied to family income, districts’ loss of well-off students could also hurt their performance on standardized tests, the report noted.

Maithreyi Gopalan

The enrollment dips could also be felt over time as the areas’ median household income declines and the communities’ socioeconomic profiles are altered. The findings highlight a need for policymakers and administrators to focus on improving the perceptions of campus safety and quality “to avoid the pitfalls of yet another round of middle-class flight away from these schools.”

Lang (Kate) Yang

“It’s a stigma that needs to be countered,” Yang told The 74. Even though districts increase spending on physical security and mental health care, she said those efforts aren’t enough to dispel the bad rap, “which suggests that either the resources are not enough or they’re not used correctly. Maybe there is not an effort, or a coordinated effort, to show people that the school is still safe,” despite the isolated shooting.

To conduct the study, researchers analyzed a database of 210 school shootings between 1999 and 2018, and compared them against district enrollment and Census data. In total, campuses that experienced shootings saw a 5 percent enrollment drop compared to those that weren’t victimized. Enrollment at nearby private schools also dipped, suggesting that shootings “reduce the desirability of the community and carry negative implications beyond the public schools where shootings occur.”

To understand the demographics of students moving elsewhere, researchers analyzed enrollment changes between students who were eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and those who were not. The enrollment declines were driven “almost entirely” by students who did not qualify for subsidized school meals, a common proxy for student poverty.

Researchers also analyzed educational spending in the wake of school shootings, finding that spending on security and student supports doesn’t crowd out instructional resources primarily due to an influx of federal money. That could also suggest that taxpayers nationwide may have a vested interest in prevention efforts, the report says.

On average, campus shootings are associated with a $129, or a 19 percent, increase in per-pupil federal funding. While per-pupil spending on student supports like counselors increased by $22 following shootings, such tragedies led to a $107 per-pupil spike in capital spending driven by construction costs to repair buildings and upgrade security. After shootings, districts increased spending by $248 per pupil, indicating that school systems took on debt to pay for the response measures.

Anecdotal evidence previously suggested that families fled their communities after school shootings, including an enrollment decline in Santa Fe, Texas, where a 17-year-old is accused of killing 10 people at a high school there in 2018. Earlier that year, the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, led several victims’ families to make cross-country moves to new homes on the West Coast, away from the politics, trauma and fear that lingered after the attack that left 17 high school students and faculty members dead.

After the 1999 Columbine shooting, DeAngelis said his school became “probably one of the safest high schools in the world,” as officials ramped up security. Yet, some students chose to enroll in other nearby schools or left the district entirely. Part of the problem, he said, is that the school was thrust under the media microscope, which likely contributed to some families leaving.

Yet for some families that departed after the shooting, he said the decision may have been a mistake.

“All of a sudden, they return the following year because they didn’t have the support at the other schools that they went to,” including a network of peers who went through similar experiences, he said.

But the researchers found the decline in students wasn’t immediate but developed over time and wasn’t limited to those who were enrolled at the time of the tragedy.

For report co-author Maithreyi Gopalan, an assistant education professor at Pennsylvania State University, the results indicate that long-term efforts to combat the effects of campus shootings is paramount, especially as enrollment is depleted over several years.

Such shootings require more response than addressing the immediate effects and providing “counselors for one or two years and then it’s gone because the funding dries up,” she said. “We want to think about having a sustained impact” through policy so mitigation efforts aren’t short lived.

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