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Learning Amid Chaos in the Arkansas Delta: What the Research Shows Us About School Safety

<Ƶ class="subtitle"> Studies show that youth violence significantly impedes student achievement. This is how Pine Bluff wrestles with the 'trauma in the room.'
By Kevin Mahnken | May 7, 2024
(Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

Eric Walden makes a lot of school visits near the end of the academic year, just as the weather turns warmer and the promise of summer vacation beckons.

That’s when the kids in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, start getting into more fights — or, as he puts it, when “business is booming.” Walden is the assistant chief juvenile officer of the local circuit court, charged with overseeing the probation of minor offenders across two counties. He also helps lead the city’s , a program designed to curb feuds in schools and neighborhoods before they take a deadly turn.

He and his colleagues keep a busy docket in Pine Bluff, a community of about 40,000 nestled in the Arkansas Delta. A stunning number of its residents are , but the city’s abiding concern the last few years has been crime. Multiple analyses have named it one of the most dangerous places in the United States, with murder rates than the national average, and a tragically high share of the violence .

The wave seemed to crest in 2021. That year saw a record 30 homicides, including that of a 15-year-old boy inside Watson Chapel Junior High School. The building has , its students relocated while awaiting the construction of a new campus. But Walden said the killing, and dozens like it over the past few years, have shaken young people in ways he can sense during trips to classrooms.   

“When we bring it up, we can feel the trauma in the room,” Walden said. “We know it’s hard: You were at school with Billy just the other day, and now he’s gone. Maybe you know the kid who killed him, and now one is locked up and the other is deceased.”

Little by little, Pine Bluff is in danger of being hollowed out, with that one out of every eight inhabitants either died or left town between 2010 and 2020. A number of factors are driving them away, from the area’s relative lack of economic opportunity to its generally poor school performance. But among them is the specter of death hanging over middle and high schoolers. 

(Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

As Superintendent Jennifer Barbaree told The 74’s Linda Jacobson, without more trust that children will be safe in district schools, “nobody’s going to send their kid here, and we’ll never raise our enrollment.”

Both in Pine Bluff and across the United States, education authorities fear that pre-COVID levels of learning can’t be restored until schools are made safer, with stronger relationships and more trust between students and faculty. Those fears are supported by a wealth of research showing that violence in schools is closely tied to lower academic achievement and life prospects. Students exposed to chaotic behavior, whether inside or outside of school, tend to learn less than their peers in well-ordered environments, and negative perceptions of school environment lead to lower attendance. 

Worry among families has clearly risen since the pandemic. In , 38 percent of American parents — down somewhat since 2022, but higher than any other period in the last two decades — said they were anxious about their children’s physical safety in school. Researcher Jennifer DePaoli said that while mass shootings like those in Uvalde and Parkland receive disproportionate attention in national news, the bulk of school safety problems stem from much less sensational causes.

The conversation about school safety largely comes up after school shootings, and that really diminishes the acts of violence that students typically experience in schools.

Jennifer DePaoli, Learning Policy Institute

“The conversation about school safety largely comes up after school shootings, and that really diminishes the acts of violence that students typically experience in schools,” DePaoli told The 74. “The bullying and threatening behavior really do make students feel unsafe on a day-to-day basis.”

A changing gang culture

Walden has an unusually keen understanding of those everyday safety problems. He first moved to Arkansas two decades ago, at age 18, after a troubled childhood in Nevada and Kansas. He’d been involved with gangs as a teenager, even facing adult charges while still a juvenile. 

“I came to Pine Bluff to get out of trouble,” he said, mingling a note of irony with real appreciation.

We see a lot of that, kids getting put on virtual, because they’re trying to prevent situations from happening.

Eric Walden, juvenile officer

Hoping to stop local kids from making the same mistakes, Walden signed on as a youth mentor while attending the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. He has been involved in the juvenile justice realm ever since, coordinating grants and working as a training officer before assuming his current role as the assistant chief of staff at the . When he’s not supervising a dozen probation officers, he ministers to the faithful as associate pastor at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church. 

Walden said the complexion of youth crime has changed significantly, and for the worse, throughout his career. He attributes that transformation in part to the nationwide evolution of so-called “,” decentralized cliques of young men engaged in criminal acts with little planning or hierarchy. Where conflict in cities like Pine Bluff was foundational groups like the Crips or Gangster Disciples, Walden said involved the killing of a young man by an acquaintance who’d recently appeared alongside him in a YouTube music video.

“I’d give anything to get back the kids we were seeing 10 years ago because you knew what you were getting then,” he remarked. “The kids we’re dealing with now, there’s no regard for adults or teachers. It doesn’t matter if you’re best friends, there’s a good chance you’ll get harmed.” 

The — an idea developed in the 1990s by celebrated criminologist David Kennedy and road-tested in an array of high-crime cities — to widespread concern. But it will also take a coordinated effort with state and law enforcement agencies to suppress the gang violence problems in central Arkansas. In a single five-day span last July, the city saw four homicides of victims . 

Erika Evans serves as the president of the Pine Bluff High School Parent-Teacher Organization. She said she was glad that her daughter attended local public schools and that her two older sons graduated as honor students. But safety issues needed to be taken seriously by everyone in the city, she added.

To have some of my children's classmates killed, that's a grave concern for me. We have to make sure that if we see something, we say something.

Erika Evans, Pine Bluff High School Parent-Teacher Organization

“To have some of my children’s classmates killed, that’s a grave concern for me,” Evans said. “We have to make sure that if we see something, we say something. It’s a community effort, and you can’t just say, ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’”

(Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

‘Always looking over my shoulder’

As in other cities, most violence in Pine Bluff occurs outside of school. But too often, parents complain, it has spilled into classrooms and hallways as well. 

When students returned from summer vacation in fall 2021 for their first year of full-time, in-person schooling since the start of the pandemic, tore through Pine Bluff High School. Some victims said they were chased through the halls by groups of their classmates. 

Such incidents may not grip to the same degree as the school shooting at Watson Chapel Junior High, but they meaningfully impede learning for the affected kids. The high school was after one 2021 fight, and Walden said that in one district he works in, it wasn’t uncommon for administrators to proactively send home students they believe to be instigators, or even targets, of violence. 

Johanna Lacoe

“If they get wind that a kid might be getting into it with somebody — even if the kid was a victim because he was threatened — they’d tell him not to come to school,” he observed. “We see a lot of that, kids getting put on virtual, because they’re trying to prevent situations from happening.”

Results from social science suggest a connection between the fear of in-school violence and poor academic results. Some of the most compelling evidence comes from New York City, where used survey responses from over 340,000 middle schoolers to chart a clear connection between feelings of physical threat in school and lower standardized test scores; the academic harm was greatest in cases where students reported staying home from school because of safety concerns.

Data from other cities point to similar trends. A on perceived safety in Chicago Public Schools found that large numbers of both students and staffers worried about being victimized in school buildings — especially in areas where fewer adults congregated — and that schools enrolling larger proportions of low-performing students were more likely to see safety problems. Another , this one based in Philadelphia, showed that the closure of underperforming schools led to a substantial decrease in crime in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Economist Matthew Steinberg, an author of both papers, said it was hard to identify a direct causal relationship because of the nature of the population enrolled in failing schools: largely disadvantaged students who are more likely to be exposed to poverty and instability at home. 

One needs only to have eyes and ears and to have lived in the world to know that if someone feels unsafe, it affects their ability to focus.

Matthew Steinberg, Accelerate

Still, he added, it was undeniable that in schools with greater behavioral challenges, teaching and learning are often subordinated to the need for classroom management.

“One needs only to have eyes and ears and to have lived in the world to know that if someone feels unsafe, it affects their ability to focus,” Steinberg said. “If I’m a kid in school, and I’m always looking over my shoulder, how does that support my learning?”

Those sentiments were echoed by Stanley Ellis, director of education at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ Institute for Digital Health & Innovation. Last fall, the institute from the U.S. Department of Justice to combat youth violence through partnerships between the Pine Bluff School District and several community and faith-based organizations. The funds target at-risk students for services and train school employees in trauma-informed education. 

Pine Bluff has a very rich, storied history — a good history. We want students to be contributors to that history, and we need to reduce violence so they can be around to do that.

Stanley Ellis, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences

Ellis identified social media as a particular conduit of stress between peers, through which bullying and conflict are carried over from school to the wider community. 

“It travels with you from school to the house,” Ellis said. “You can’t concentrate in class because you’re trying to respond to the negative stuff that’s been said about you or your friends or your family members.”

(Marianna McMurdock/The 74)

Recalling a ‘rich, storied history

A native of the Arkansas Delta, Ellis said that Pine Bluff’s reputation as a place of crime and disorder was belied by its much older record of achievement. 

Freed slaves during and after the Civil War, establishing businesses and occasionally winning local office. Opportunity surged through the mid-20th century with the growth of employment in the and paper industries. While the emergent African American population there was also subjected to during and after Reconstruction, he said, young people were inheritors of a legacy of uplift.

“Pine Bluff has a very rich, storied history — a good history,” he said. “We want students to be contributors to that history, and we need to reduce violence so they can be around to do that.”

Sources agreed, however, that if the city is going to see a revival, it will have to stem the departure of its inhabitants, more than 10,000 of whom left over the last 14 years. One of the keys to that turnaround will be better academic performance from a school system that has recently posted some of the .

Many parents cheered last fall when the school district after years under state supervision. The handover is seen as a reflection of better financial management and real, if modest, growth in student performance.

Now Evans and other parents are looking forward to 2026, when to complete a new high school. Besides offering an upgrade in overall facilities, it is hoped that a new campus will offer new safety features — the existing campus, spread across multiple structures, is too diffuse for administrators and school resource officers to oversee, parents have complained — that will relieve students’ and teachers’ fears about disruptive behavior. 

Evans, who to raise funds for the new building, said she hoped a renewed commitment to education would not only improve public schools, but also reset people’s expectations of what is possible in Pine Bluff.

“When we’ve been out discussing the building of a new high school, we saw the community enthralled,” she said. “They were happy to see a brand-new school, and when you bring a new school, the mindset shifts: Here is an opportunity for improvement.” 

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