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Carnegie Report Warns of Risks To Adolescents

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WASHINGTON--Unless schools, health providers, parents, and policymakers join together to help young adolescents, a large proportion of today's teenagers will face troubled and unhealthy lives as adults, a report to be issued this week by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development concludes.

The report--which is expected to have a strong influence on the grant-making efforts of the council's sponsoring institution, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to promote healthy lifestyles among young people--stresses that many young adolescents have adopted risky behaviors that may endanger their future well-being.

"By age 15, about a quarter of all young adolescents are engaged in behaviors that are harmful or dangerous to themselves or others,'' says the report, which was scheduled to be released here at a Carnegie-sponsored forum on adolescent health.

"Of 28 million adolescents between the ages of 10 and 18, approximately 7 million are at serious risk of being harmed by health- and even life-threatening activity, as well as by school failure'' it contends. "Another 7 million are at moderate risk.''

But even the 14 million teenagers this age who "appear to be growing up basically healthy ... are not immune to risk since most of them at the very least lack sufficient problem-solving skills,'' the report cautions.

The report, written by the former New York Times education writer Fred M. Hechinger, is one in a series of studies sponsored by Carnegie's adolescent council. Entitled "Fateful Choices: Healthy Youth for the 21st Century,'' this latest study expands on many of the themes covered three years ago by another Carnegie-backed report, "Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century.''

The influential 1989 report criticized the "volatile mismatch'' between the structure and curriculum of the middle grades and the needs of students in the crucial developmental years of early adolescence. (See Education Week, June 21, 1989.)

Since then, the Carnegie Corporation has embarked on a $7-million effort to help 15 states reform education in the middle grades. (See Education Week, Oct. 30, 1991.)

Later this year, the Washington-based adolescent-development council is expected to release two more reports about young people. One will examine the decline in community-related resources and services for poor adolescents; the other will discuss how to promote healthy behaviors among teenagers.

Two Years of Health Education

The new report points out that many problems faced by adolescents ages 10 to 15 can be traced to the fact that many of them lack access to health care.

At the same time, Mr. Hechinger's report observes, record numbers of young adolescents are engaging in high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use, premature sexual activity, sexual intercourse without using a condom, and gang membership.

The report, which attempts to synthesize many academic studies about adolescence and present them in a way that can be understood by a wide audience, calls on schools, businesses, health providers, policymakers at the federal and state levels, and community organizers to:

  • Offer at least two years of health and life-science education, including biology, for all students in the upper-elementary and middle grades.
  • Ensure that all adolescents receive health care. All teenagers should be covered by health insurance that includes preventive services, the report says, and school-linked health services should be greatly expanded.
  • Beef up youth and community organizations so they can better compete with gangs for membership. These groups should actively encourage health-promotion activities, the report says.
  • Encourage news and entertainment broadcasters to develop shows that encourage responsible behavior.
  • Create mentoring, internship, and apprenticeship opportunities for young people so they are better prepared to enter the workforce.
  • Improve the number, as well as quality, of health-care professionals who work with adolescents.
  • Establish safety zones around schools, and initiate conflict-resolution programs.
  • Work to ban the sale and possession of unregistered guns.

'An Unpleasant Phase'

Although the report notes that its recommendations reflect only the views of Mr. Hechinger, these suggestions are likely to influence future Carnegie Corporation grant-making, according to Vivien Stewart, who heads the philanthropy's Education and Healthy Development of Children and Youth program.

To follow up on the report's recommendation for comprehensive approaches to the problems faced by young adolescents, Ms. Stewart said last week, the corporation is likely to make grants to programs that improve human-biology classes, as well as programs that create or expand school-based health services.

"In the past, we focused on things on a problem-by-problem basis,'' she said of the Carnegie Corporation. "I think the new understanding is that there are connections among many of these things.''

Ms. Stewart said the corporation soon will begin discussing its specific responses to the recommendations.

Currently, she said, Carnegie has provided support to programs aimed at developing a life-science curriculum for the middle grades, providing technical support for school-based clinics, developing violence-prevention programs, and supporting community-based youth groups.

In an interview last week, Mr. Hechinger said he was attracted to the "Fateful Choices'' project because he believes the concerns of adolescents, and particularly young adolescents, are frequently overlooked.

"The public attitude, and certainly that of parents, is that adolescence is a phase that everyone goes through and will come out healthy in the end,'' he said. "People say it's an unpleasant phase.''

Many also believe that by the time a child reaches adolescence, bad behaviors have become ingrained and "it's already too late to do anything,'' Mr. Hechinger said.

"Both of these attitudes lead to a kind of inaction at a time when action is really necessary,'' he said.

Gleaning information that is specific to young adolescents is difficult, he said, noting that some of the studies he includes in the book do not focus on this age group.

"When people talk about teenagers, they are talking about anyone who isn't 20 years old yet,'' he said. "The statistics frequently put them all together.''

Copies of the report can be obtained free of charge from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, P.O. Box 753, Waldorf, Md. 20604.

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