For the last several decades middle-class families have been fleeing from the cities to the suburbs, in part because many parents see the suburbs, and suburban public schools in particular, as refuges from the disorder and social collapse they see as endemic to America's urban school districts. Parents believe that suburban public schools provide children with safer, more orderly, and more wholesome environments than their urban counterparts.
This report finds that those perceptions are unfounded. Using hard data on high school students from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, one of the most comprehensive and rigorous studies of the behavior of American high school students, it finds that suburban public high school students have sex, drink, smoke, use illegal drugs, and engage in delinquent behavior as often as urban public high school students. Students also engage in these behaviors more often than most people realize.
This report finds that:
- Urban and suburban high schools are virtually identical in terms of widespread sexual activity. Two thirds of all suburban and urban 12th graders have had sex; 43% of suburban 12th graders and 39% of urban 12th graders have had sex with a person with whom they did not have a romantic relationship.
- Pregnancy rates are high in both suburban and urban schools, although they are higher in urban schools; 14% of suburban 12th grade girls and 20% of urban 12th grade girls have been pregnant.
- Over 60% of suburban 12th graders have tried cigarette smoking, compared to 54% of urban 12th graders; 37% of suburban 12th graders have smoked at least once a day for at least 30 days, compared to 30% of urban 12th graders.
- Alcohol use followed a similar pattern; 74% of suburban 12th graders and 71% of urban 12th graders have tried alcohol more than two or three times; 63% of suburban 12th graders and 57% of urban 12th graders drink without family members present; 22% of suburban 12th graders and 16% of urban 12th graders have driven while drunk.
- About four out of ten 12th graders in both urban and suburban schools have used illegal drugs; 20% of suburban 12th graders and 13% of urban 12th graders have driven while high on drugs.
- Urban and suburban students are about equally likely to engage in other delinquent behaviors such as fighting and stealing.
The data show that fleeing from the city to the suburbs doesn't produce much difference in the levels of sex, substance use, and delinquency one finds at the local public high school. The comforting outward signs of order and decency in suburban public schools don't seem to be associated with substantial differences in student behavior.