When the "D.C. Sniper" John Allen Muhammad and his then-teenage accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo went on a three-week shooting spree back in 2002, their bloody rampage did more than leave a trail of victims and spread panic throughout the capital region.
The Beltway sniper attacks also hurt math and reading scores at elementary and middle schools in Virginia that were in close proximity to the shootings, according to a new study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. What’s more, the schools where performance worsened the most were those serving the largest populations of disadvantaged students.
The overall declines experienced at nearby campuses between the years before and after the incident were significantly greater than those at schools farther away, according to the paper, which is titled "The Effect of Community Traumatic Events on Student Achievement: Evidence from the Beltway Sniper Attacks." Seth Gershenson and Erdal Tekin, professors and researchers at American University’s School of Public Affairs, authored the paper, which uses the Beltway attacks as a case study to explore the impact of traumatic community violence on kids’ academic performance.
On average, test scores for schools within a few miles of the shootings, which left 10 people dead and three injured, declined by as much as 9 percent between 2002 and 2003, according to the study's calculations. (The study consulted schools' composite scores on standardized third- and fifth-grade math and reading assessments and calculated an estimated range for the declines; the drop in test scores could've averaged as low as 5 percent, according to the most-conservative calculation.) Notably, the negative effects were more pronounced among schools serving primarily poor and black populations, according to the researchers, who in part attributed the augmented impact on disadvantaged students to the limitations faced by lower-income parents in helping their children cope after a tragedy.