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The Myth Of The Wholesome Suburban High School

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The Myth Of The Wholesome Suburban High School

January 29, 2004
OtherCulture & Society
Urban PolicyOther
EducationPre K-12

For decades, American families have been moving out of cities and into suburbs in part because they believe suburban schools provide what they regard as a more wholesome environment. But data from a new study show that students in suburban high schools engage in as much use of alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs as students in urban schools - or even more than their city counterparts. Suburban schools also had about the same levels of sexual behavior as urban schools.

Americans generally believe that these behaviors are more common in urban schools than in suburban schools. In movies, on television and in the imagination of the average American the urban public high school conjures images of students smoking, drinking, doing drugs and having sex, while suburban public high schools do not.

These perceptions have helped drive more families to the suburbs, but they are not rooted in fact. A new study by the Manhattan Institute shows that the behaviors parents are concerned about are just as prevalent in suburban public high schools as in urban ones - and sometimes more prevalent.

The study is based on data collected by the federal government in a very large national survey of adolescents. Students taking the survey listened to the questions through headphones and entered their answers on laptop computers, so their privacy was particularly well-protected. The survey is a big breakthrough for academic research on adolescent behavior.

By the time they reach 12th grade, 62 percent of suburban students have smoked cigarettes, compared to 54 percent of urban students. Perhaps more important, 37 percent of suburban 12th-graders have smoked regularly (that is, at least once a day for a period of at least 30 days), compared to 30 percent of urban 12th-graders.

Alcohol use is even more common than tobacco use. Among 12th-graders, 74 percent of suburban students have drunk more than two or three times, compared with 71 percent of urban students. What's more, 63 percent of suburban 12th-graders say they drink without family members present, compared with 58 percent of urban 12th-graders. And 22 percent of suburban 12th-graders say they have driven while drunk, compared to 16 percent of urban 12th-graders.

The use of illegal drugs is not as widespread as the use of tobacco and alcohol, but neither is it confined to just a small group of especially bad kids. In suburban schools, 42 percent of 12th-graders have used an illegal drug, while in urban schools 45 percent of 12th-graders have done so. Parents who flee cities for suburbs have not substantially lowered their children’s exposure to illegal drug use in high school.

Why do these levels of substance use occur in suburban schools, away from the “urban problems” that popular opinion associates with substance use? No doubt there are many factors at work here, but money is one likely suspect. Suburban students presumably have more disposable income to spend on cigarettes, beer and drugs.

But the prevalence of behaviors that parents are concerned about in suburban schools is not limited to substance use. For example, in both urban and suburban schools, about two-thirds of 12th-graders have had sexual intercourse. And parents might be particularly worried to hear that 43 percent of suburban 12th-graders and 39 percent of urban 12th-graders have had sex with a person with whom they did not have a romantic relationship.

Teenage pregnancy is one thing parents are concerned about that does occur less frequently in suburban schools, although it still occurs at a significant rate. In urban schools, a markedly high 20 percent of all 12th-grade girls have been pregnant, compared to 14 percent of 12th-grade girls in suburban schools.

America’s suburban parents should stop clinging to the illusion that smoking, drinking, drugs and sexual activity are somehow confined to urban schools. The high schools their children attend are no different from urban high schools when it comes to these behaviors. If they’re concerned about the peer behavior their children are exposed to at school, they’re going to have to face up to this fact.