Poll Finds Fear of Crime Alters Student Routines

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Fear of crime and violence leads many young people to miss school, get lower grades, and carry weapons, according to a nationwide poll of teenagers released last week.

A substantial number of the more than 2,000 students surveyed reported that crime has had a significant effect on their daily routines, curtailing their freedom of movement and encroaching on schoolwork.

Researchers interviewed 2,023 students in grade 7 and higher in public, private, and parochial schools nationwide. The Louis Harris and Associates survey, which was conducted last fall, also included a nationally representative sample of students in at-risk neighborhoods.

Young people living in at-risk neighborhoods--characterized in the study as having a high incidence of crime, drug use, and gang activity--reported a heightened sense of concern for their safety.

Among the survey findings:

  • 12 percent of all respondents--and 38 percent of those in at-risk neighborhoods--reported carrying such weapons as bats, clubs, knives, or guns to school for protection.
  • 28 percent, including those in at-risk communities, reported that they "sometimes or never" felt safe in their school buildings.
  • 11 percent--34 percent of at-risk students--said they had stayed home from school or cut classes because of their fear of crime or violence.
  • 12 percent--31 percent of at-risk students--said their fear of violence had had a negative effect on their grades.

"Crime and violence force kids as young as 12 to confront a world of very harsh realities" that can affect their academic performance, said Erin Donovan, a co-director of Teens, Crime, and the Community, the Washington-based national education and service-learning group that commissioned the survey with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The study also found conflicting views about gangs. While 78 percent of the teenagers interviewed said gangs were "violent and destructive," 25 percent said most young people in their neighborhoods admired gang members.

Eighty-six percent of the teenagers interviewed said they would be interested in becoming involved in violence-prevention efforts in their communities.

More Study Needed

Surveys involving teenagers are often challenging for researchers, who find that young people may exaggerate the number of weapons they carry, for example, or understate their fear of crime, some education observers note.

But Bob Leitman, the executive vice president of Louis Harris and Associates, said the students' responses in the new survey are consistent with other national surveys on teenagers and crime. He estimated that the survey has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Still, many education researchers say the theory that exposure to crime and violence contributes to educational failure needs to be explored further.

In a related development, the National Health and Education Consortium, a Washington-based coalition of 58 health and education associations, released a report last week suggesting that violence appears to have an effect on children's ability to learn.

In "Hidden Casualties: The Relationship Between Violence and Learning," Deborah Prothow-Stith, a professor of public health at Harvard University and an expert on violence prevention, says existing literature suggests that "exposure to violence has a lifelong effect on learning."

The report adds that though more research is needed, initiatives such as coordinated violence-prevention efforts by the community, parents, and schools are likely to help diminish the harmful psychological effects that violence can have on children.

Vol. 15, Issue 17

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