Researchers have shown — and teachers know — that schoolchildren exposed to neighborhood violence can have a tougher time learning, experiencing more stress and depression than their peers growing up in safe neighborhoods.

But a Johns Hopkins University sociologist discovered that the consequences of neighborhood violence reach further than previously known, even spilling over to students who come from safe neighborhoods. Using crime and student data from Chicago, Julia Burdick-Will linked exposure to neighborhood violence to a drop in test scores, an effect that extended to students coming from communities that experienced little or no violence.

“The individual effects may really be the tip of the iceberg. . . . We could potentially see this effect in schools for more than just the kid who lived around the corner from a homicide,” said Burdick-Will, an assistant professor who studies urban schools. Her findings were published last month in Sociology of Education, an academic journal. “You can detect what seems to be the effect of . . . a classmate’s exposure to violence on everyone in the classroom.”

Schools are increasingly recognizing trauma as a factor that may be derailing learning, with more districts training educators on how to teach students who may be grappling with traumatizing events. And it’s not just violence that can inflict trauma: Unstable family life and natural disasters that upend a student’s life take their toll.

Alex King, a 17-year-old anti-violence activist in Chicago, knows firsthand how community violence can make learning challenging. King, who lives in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, has grown up surrounded by gun violence. His nephew was fatally shot the day after school let out one year. King helped organize the End of the School Year Peace March and Rally in Chicago last month with survivors of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, and he found out that night that a friend had been killed.

“I’ve been shot at multiple times. I’ve lost family and friends to violence,” King said. “It kind of, like, became a part of life, violence. It’s like something that you can’t escape.”

A recent high school graduate, he plans to head to Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

King recalled being shot at while walking with a group of friends, an incident that left him depressed and frightened. He said some teachers were understanding, but he sensed that others lacked empathy.

“It was hard for me to focus. My mind was on the incident that occurred and not on school at the time,” he said. “It was a lot of daydreaming about what had taken place.”

Burdick-Will analyzed data from freshmen in Chicago Public Schools between 2002 and 2010 and examined their test results over time. Taking into account other factors, she found that classes with greater proportions of students from violent neighborhoods performed worse than classes with fewer such students. Because of Chicago’s school choice policies, students in a single school can come from vastly different neighborhoods, allowing Burdick-Will to examine the effects of attending a school with a high proportion of students from violent areas.

She hypothesized that this “peer effect” occurs because students who live in the midst of violence may be more disruptive and less engaged, problems teachers have to address with little assistance from counselors.

“When you have kids who are stressed and potentially responding in exaggerated ways or just being upset and traumatized and needing the teacher’s attention . . . it has an effect on everybody in the classroom,” she said.

Burdick-Will said she hopes her work impels schools to focus more resources on students who return to violent neighborhoods when they leave the classroom, offering long-term support rather than just responding to tragedies. But she said she hopes it does not drive districts to isolate these students because that would only amplify the impact of trauma.

“There’s a lot of kids in this country and kids in this city who are exposed to this stuff every day,” Burdick-Will said. “What they really need is a lot of constant social support.”

King said he wants educators to be more empathetic in dealing with students who might be experiencing stress related to witnessing violence. He had a different counselor each year of high school, and sometimes he felt like his teachers did not understand what he was going through.

“When someone has been impacted by a traumatic event, the best thing you can do is just to be there,” King said. 

Burdick-Will hopes her work will move policymakers from all kinds of communities — including safe ones — to grapple with urban violence.

“If the effects of violence can be felt in schools across the city, then reducing that violence should become something that is important to residents and policymakers in every neighborhood, not just those with the highest crime rates,” she wrote in her report. “In fact, reducing violence in the city may benefit a much larger number of students than it might seem on the surface.”

Said King: “That’s what I want people to get out of this — that a problem elsewhere affects everyone.”