Research of Note for September 2002

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Because September is back-to-school month, it’s a good time to think about schools. Two of the three new studies below focus on schools – on race as a barrier to friendships and on violence in suburban compared to urban schools. The third study examines how youths go from being nonsmokers to regular smokers during the middle school and high school years, with some information on how schools and school success influence smoking.

Race and Friendships

Race, School Integration, and Friendship Segregation in America
James Moody
American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 107, No. 3, November 2001, pp. 679-716. Copies free from Moody at 372 Bricker Hall, Dept. of Sociology, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio 43210,

Almost 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education held out hope of ending racial segregation in schools, most school friendships are still among students of the same race. Why? Social science research (and our own experience) tells us that people tend to become friends with others they perceive as similar. If kids perceive race as an important difference, they will be less likely to become friends with kids of other races. However, when other factors are more important – such as being on the same team, belonging to the same youth group, being in the same class or having similar interests – those mutual interests and experiences can overcome the perception that kids of other races are different.

This new study used the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which includes youths in grades 7-12, to try to determine when other factors trump race. This enormous study includes more than 90,000 students selected from 132 schools in April 1994. Each student filled out a questionnaire and was asked to list five male and five female friends from a roster of other youth at those schools.

The authors report that friendships are “highly segregated” by race and the odds of nominating a same race friend is 1.8 times the odds of nominating a cross-race friend. Although statistically significant, this is certainly not as “highly segregated” as friendships prior to school integration. Controlling for other factors, such as belonging to the same clubs, decreases that to an average of 1.3.

There is enormous variation: In some schools, teens are just as likely to list a friend that is a different race as to list one of the same race, whereas in other schools they are five times as likely to list a friend of the same race.

The researcher concluded that segregation within schools becomes more likely as diversity increases from moderately low to moderately high, but segregation decreases in schools that are most diverse. He speculates that schools having students from more than two races tend to have more friendships across race and also tend to be the most diverse schools.

What can schools and youth workers do to foster such friendships? The authors suggest that keeping kids in groups in the same grade increases cross-race friendships, because the kids believe that they have more in common. For example, if a journalism class has kids of different races and different grades, the kids are more likely to choose friends of the same race even if it means choosing friends in a different grade. In contrast, if all the kids in the journalism class are in the same grade, they are more likely to choose cross-race friends.

Integrated extracurricular activities also encourage cross-race friends. The examples in the study are from school, but they obviously apply as well to sports, clubs and other youth organizations.

It is therefore not surprising that the researchers found that school busing did not encourage integration as much as integrated neighborhood schools did. That’s at least partly because when race and social class are linked, there is less integration. It’s also because the kids who are bused will be seen – and see themselves – as different from the other students.

This is well-designed research on an important topic. Unfortunately, it is long and technically worded, making it hard work to plow through and difficult to understand.

How Does Smoking Start?

Predictors of Change on the Smoking Uptake Continuum Among Adolescents
Nancy J. Kaufman, M.S., Brian Castrucci, Paul Mowery, M.S., and colleagues.
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 156, June 2002, pp. 581-7. Copies free from Kaufman, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Route 1 and College Road, East Princeton, NJ 08543.

Everyone knows that smoking is unhealthy, but thanks to the more than $5 billion spent on tobacco advertising and promotion last year, almost one in four Americans still smokes. Almost all started smoking as children or youth, despite drug prevention efforts in most schools. If youth workers want to help prevent smoking they need to understand how to prevent a nonsmoking child from becoming a smoker, as well as what compels a nonsmoker to start.

This study of more than 17,000 youths ages 13-19 in 1996, set out to provide that information. In addition to the large sample size, the study is impressive because it attempted to delineate the stages by which teens change from nonsmokers to regular smokers.

Researchers start with teens who have never smoked, categorizing them as “susceptible” if they didn’t say they “absolutely would not smoke” some time during the next year or ever in the future, even if one of their best friends offered a cigarette. The next category, the experimenter, has never smoked an entire cigarette but has tried at least a few puffs.

Those who have ever smoked an entire cigarette are categorized in terms of whether they smoked in the last 30 days. If not, they are categorized as former smokers who either think they would definitely never smoke again, or think they might. “Regular smokers” are defined as those who smoked at least one day during the previous 30 days and smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime.

Among the youngest (ages 13-14), 41 percent were deemed susceptible to smoking – which means that they did not vehemently rule out smoking in the future – compared to only 26 percent of the 17- to 18-year-olds. Approximately one in three white and Hispanic youth were susceptible, compared to 27 percent of the black youth. Approximately one in three females who had never smoked were susceptible, which was slightly higher than the males

Approximately 9 percent of all adolescents were experimenters, regardless of age. Blacks were more likely to experiment (14 percent) than whites (7 percent) or Hispanics (11 percent). Given the addictive nature of smoking and the cost, it is not surprising that older youth were more likely to be regular smokers: one in four 17- to 18- year-olds compared to 13 percent of 13- to 14-year-olds.

However, the 26 percent of white adolescents who were regular smokers was more than twice as high as the 12 percent of Hispanics and about five times as high as the 5 percent of black adolescents who were regular smokers.

In addition to demographics, there were other predictors of whether a youth was likely to smoke. Youth who were exposed to the smoking of friends or family members were more susceptible, more likely to have experimented with a few puffs, and much more likely to be regular smokers.

The study did not include questions about the smoking habits of adult role models, but it is expected that the impact would be similar.

Skipping class and doing poorly in school also predicted being an experimenter or regular smoker. Lack of attendance in religious activities predicted regular smoking but not other behavior. “No smoking” policies at school were not related to whether
students smoked or thought about smoking.

Students who described themselves as having a favorite cigarette advertisement predicted being susceptible to smoking or having experimented by puffing on a cigarette, but did not predict being a regular smoker.

This is consistent with another recent study, which found that smoking advertisements undermined the anti-smoking messages of parents and other adults, and increased the chances that youth would start smoking despite the warnings of adults. That study, “Does Tobacco Marketing Undermine the Influence of Recommended Parenting in Discouraging Adolescents from Smoking?” is published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Probing Deadly Violence

Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence
National Academy Press
Available free online at, or order print copy for $32 at or $40 at (800) 624-6242.

Extreme, lethal violence in suburban and rural schools such as Columbine High School are more like an adult rampage than other types of youth violence, according to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences.

The report is based on a very small sample: four case studies in rural and suburban schools in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas, and two studies in urban schools in Chicago and New York City. In the city incidents, the shooters were involved in disputes with other individuals and thought their own lives were in danger. In the suburban and rural schools, the attackers were not physically threatened, but believed that they and their social standing were under attack by circumstances that made their lives difficult.

The eight shooters in the six case studies were all boys and had relatively easy access to guns, but differed greatly in age, race, family background, school success and other traits. Although five had serious mental health problems that became apparent after the shootings, most were perceived by friends as ordinary adolescents, and several had stable two-parent families and other advantageous circumstances.

The report concluded that if these case studies were used to develop a profile of a potential killer, such a profile would be useless because it would fit many harmless adolescents.

The report didn’t have much advice to offer to youth workers, other than the need to take specific threats seriously and to stay connected with kids. The authors were clearly concerned that we lack the information we need to prevent these tragedies. They recommended future research on problems such as serious bullying and other nonlethal violence, illegal gun-carrying by adolescents, how to more effectively keep firearms out of schools and away from unsupervised youth, and the signs and symptoms of youth mental health problems.

The report was funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Although it sounds interesting and persuasive, the small number of schools studied calls into question how conclusive the findings are.

And unfortunately, all the members of the committee responsible for the report were from universities, except for Lewis Spence, the commissioner of social services in Boston.

As I read the chairman’s remarks on how fortunate we were that there have been “very few” school rampages, I couldn’t help but think that it might not feel that way to teachers in neighborhood schools. The report might have benefited from a few committee members from middle and high schools.