Racial Segregation of Schools and Communities: Implications for Social Disorganization and School Violence

Michael J. Hogan, University of Northern Colorado
Paul Stretesky, University of South Florida

As a result of several recent and highly publicized incidents of school violence, most notably the massacre at Columbine High School, this issue has become one of increasing public concern, particularly among the middle and upper classes who formerly were seen as largely immune from such problems. Along with the increase in public concern has come an increase in scholarly interest, although at present this remains a relatively uninvestigated area. The area of racial segregation has also seen something of a revival of interest in recent years among researchers, if not the general public. Specifically, nearly 40 years after the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, there is a growing body of evidence that schools remain relatively segregated. Similarly, recent research indicates that nearly 30 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the abolition of Jim Crow, we may actually be more racially segregated residentially than ever. Drawing on social disorganization theory, the present paper integrates these previously separate lines of research by examining the relationship between racial segregation at both the school and residential levels, and school crime and violence. After reviewing recent research on both school crime and racial segregation, we argue that the segregation of both schools and communities has implications for school crime and violence by fostering social disorganization. Social disorganization is typically characterized by weak social bonds, both formal and informal, among members of a community as well as weak or absent informal social controls on behavior. We specifically suggest that school desegregation in the absence of residential segregation at the community level may contribute to social disorganization in two ways, and thus also contribute to school crime and/or violence. First, the presence of a desegregated school in a residentially segregated community may weaken the ties between the school-and the students in that school-and the larger community. Second, this could also weaken ties between students and the school itself, especially if there are large numbers of students attending the school who reside outside of the community where the school is located. The weaker social and institutional connections in this context would thus weaken the ability of both the school and the community to exert informal controls over the behavior of students and result in higher rates of school crime. Based on this argument, we propose a typology, shown in Table 1, of schools and their expected rates of crime based on their level of racial segregation and the segregation of the communities in which they are located. As the table indicates, we anticipate minority-segregated schools located in minority-segregated communities to have the largest amount of crime. This is due to the fact that large numbers of such schools will be located in relatively high-crime urban areas and will draw their student population primarily from the surrounding community. Thus, high rates of crime in the schools will reflect the high crime rates in their communities. For similar reasons, and recent publicity notwithstanding, we anticipate that white-segregated schools in white-segregated communities will have the lowest rates of crime since these schools will be predominantly located in relatively low crime areas and will again largely draw on the surrounding community for their student populations. We further predict, based on social disorganization theory, that non-segregated schools located in either white- or minority-segregated communities will continue to have relatively high rates of crime in spite of desegregation. Although racial desegregation is expected to have a positive impact in terms of reducing school crime, it is also expected, as discussed above, that these benefits will to a large extent be offset by a weakening of social ties between students, school, and community. The resulting social disorganization will thus contribute to crime in such schools. Finally, we expect non-segregated schools in non-segregated communities to have relatively low rates of crime, although recent research on racial segregation shows that this is a relatively rare situation. It is assumed that in a community that is not residentially segregated the schools will be de-facto desegregated because they will be able to draw a racially diverse student body from the surrounding community. In such schools and communities social and institutional bonds and informal social control will remain strong and thus from a social disorganization perspective contribute to low rates of school crime. We attempt to empirically validate the above typology using data from schools in Florida. Specifically, we compute segregation scores for each school and its surrounding census tract in order to classify them based on the typology of school and community segregation and then compare school crime rates across categories of the typology. Preliminary data analyses indicate that our empirical results are consistent with the patterns of crime proposed in the typology

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Updated 05/20/2006