This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Philadelphia closed about 30 schools earlier this decade, many people feared the closures would harm surrounding communities as much as they would harm students, with abandoned school buildings becoming symbols of blight or magnets for crime.
But a new study from University of Pennsylvania challenges that assumption.
Researchers examined blocks surrounding those closed schools and measured how often people in those areas called police to report a crime.
Looking at data from 2006-2016, before and after the closures, they found the rates went down by “significant and substantive” margins.
Calls to police for violent crime fell especially sharply, according to the study, which will be published this summer in Regional Science and Urban Economics, an academic journal.
This drop happened during and around the school day, suggesting that it was the presence of students that had previously created more police calls. When the students left, crime seemed to slow.
But there was no corresponding increase during nights or weekends, suggesting that shuttered buildings did not become nerve centers of illegal activity. Co-author Matthew Steinberg believes that’s because many of the closures happened in struggling neighborhoods where there were already plenty of vacant properties.
“You’re talking about already-blighted communities where you’ve just effectively added another vacant building,” Steinberg said.