Research of Note for September 2004

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This month’s studies remind us that research can surprise us and can have practical implications for youth workers, and that schools are not the safe havens we’d like them to be.

Teen Moms and Breastfeeding

Lactation Among Adolescent Mothers and Subsequent Bone Mineral Density
Caroline Chantry, M.D.; Peggy Auinger, M.S.; and Robert Byrd M.D., M.P.H.
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 158, July 2004, pages 650-656
Available free from Dr. Chantry at Department of Pediatrics, University of California at Davis Medical Center, 2516 Stockton Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95817, or

Everyone knows that breastfeeding is good for babies, but is it good for teen mothers as well? Because teenagers tend to eat lots of junk food and not consume enough calcium, this study examined whether breastfeeding is dangerous for teen moms.

The study is based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III (NHANES III), conducted by the federal government from 1988 through 1994. The researchers looked at the health of young women in their 20s. Of those who had been teen mothers, 94 had breastfed their babies and 151 had not. Of those who first gave birth in their 20s, 67 had breastfed and 89 had not. Another 419 had never had a baby.

Surprisingly, the results showed that breastfeeding was good for the teen mothers. When all the women were in their 20s, the bone mineral density of teen mothers who had breastfed was higher than that of teen mothers who had not breastfed and equal to that of women who hadn’t had babies. Women who had breastfed as adolescents even had higher mineral bone density than those who breastfed when they gave birth as adults.

There are racial differences, and white mothers are more likely to breastfeed as adolescents or as adults. But the researchers statistically controlled for age, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, exercise, current smoking, alcohol use, lifetime oral contraceptive use, weight, height, diet, vitamins and age of puberty. So the benefits of breastfeeding are real, not a result of other differences between the teen moms.

Youth workers can keep these results in mind as they help new mothers decide whether to nurse their babies.

Abuse in Schools – Yes, But Read Carefully

Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature
By Charol Shakeshaft, Ph.D.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Policy and Program Studies Service
Available free at

This review of the research on sexual mistreatment of children in public schools may seem like a surprising subject for the U.S. Department of Education to explore.

The report responds to a legislative requirement of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to conduct a study of the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools. However, the report is based on a review of studies that have been conducted on sexual misconduct as well as sexual abuse, the former being a broader range of problems that made department officials somewhat uncomfortable, as they admitted in their introduction to the report.

Based on the limited research that has been conducted, the report describes the prevalence of educator sexual misconduct, the characteristics of offenders, the likely targets of educator sexual misconduct and recommendations for prevention.

The department paid a faculty member at Hofstra University to write this report under contract. Let’s see how it went.

The results were based on 24 sources, but that includes a summary of newspaper stories and other subjective information. Only four were studies from national surveys, and only one of them, a study by the American Association of University Women, was based a representative national sample. Since those are the strongest data, that study will be the focus of my summary.

The students were 8th- to 11th-graders in 1993 and 2000, and the study was conducted by professional interviewers from Harris International. It included 14 questions about teacher behavior, such as making “sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks,” showing or giving the student “sexual pictures, photos, or messages,” or spreading sexual rumors about the students. Students were also asked about whether teachers “spied on you as you dressed or showered at school,” “touched, grabbed, or pinched you in a sexual way,” or “pulled off or down your clothing.”

The thought of teachers doing that to children is distressing, but a report on this topic is obviously important and controversial.
So, it needs to be credible. Unfortunately, this report has serious problems.
To illustrate how questionable this report is, consider this section:

“9.6 percent of all students in grades 8 to 11 report contact and/or noncontact educator sexual misconduct that was unwanted. 8.7 percent report only noncontact sexual misconduct and 6.7 percent experienced only contact misconduct. (These total to [sic] more than 9.6 percent because some students reported both types of misconduct.)”

Let’s look at the statement that almost 10 percent of the students experienced contact and/or noncontact educator sexual misconduct. With a total of 10 percent, it is obviously not possible for almost 9 percent to have experienced only noncontact misconduct and almost 7 percent to experience only contact misconduct. Maybe the words are a typo, but we shouldn’t have to guess.

Almost immediately after that snafu, the report says: “To get a sense of the extent of the number of students who have been targets of educator sexual misconduct, I applied the percent of students who report experiencing educator sexual misconduct to the population of all K-12 students. Based on the assumption that the AAUW surveys accurately represent the experiences of all K-12 students, more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.”

The assumption that the percentage for students in grades 8 through 11 would also apply to students in grades K through 12 is ridiculous. We just don’t know if the percentage can be applied to all students, and this study can’t tell us. As a practical matter, the kids are reporting lifetime sexual misconduct involving educators, so older children are more likely to have had such experiences, since they have been in school longer. Moreover, younger children, who are in more closely supervised situations and usually with female teachers, might be less likely to be sexually abused. (Note that the report says that at least 80 percent of offending educators are men.)

But the author doesn’t see it that way. In fact, the author claims that this is an underestimate because older children might not remember what happened to them in school when they were younger. (That’s true, but still doesn’t justify the statistical manipulation.) The author also reminds us that the students were asked only about unwanted sexual activity, not activity that was welcomed or where the student felt neutral. Also true, but that is another matter entirely.

In addition to the questionable interpretations of data, the author also points out that the AAUW report found that “of students who experienced any kind of sexual misconduct in schools, 21 percent were targets of educators, while the remaining 79 percent were targets of other students.” If about 10 percent of all students were targets of sexual misconduct by educators, as stated earlier, this finding means that about four times as many students – or 40 percent – were targets of sexual misconduct by other students. If that estimate is accurate, we should be paying a lot more attention to that finding. In this report, it is barely noticed.

The report has other problems. For example, it criticizes a survey of readers of Seventeen magazine because it only asked about sexual misconduct in the previous year. That is called a “flaw” of the study. No, it is not. Most researchers would tell you that asking about what happened the previous year is not a flaw. In fact, the information is likely to be much more accurate than asking youth to remember incidents from many years ago.

Perhaps the rest of the report is completely accurate, but readers cannot assume that. The Department of Education appears to have been concerned about using the term “sexual misconduct” interchangeably with “sexual abuse,” but not concerned about the sometimes obvious misinterpretation of the data.

The report’s introduction by the department concludes with the politically correct statement that the “vast majority of schools in America are safe places.” Given that the report estimates that approximately half the students have been victims of sexual misconduct by educators or (more likely) by other students, it is hard to accept that reassurance.

Whatever the details of the data in this report, the overall message is that, for many children, schools are not safe places. That seems to be true, even if the specific statistics are questionable. Youth workers need to keep that in mind and help kids cope with the experiences they may have at school.

Mental Health of Juvenile Justice Youth

Assessing the Mental Health Status of Youth in Juvenile Justice Settings
Gail A. Wasserman, Susan J. Ko and Larkin S. McReynolds Juvenile Justice Bulletin, August 2004
Available free at

Youth in juvenile justice settings often have mental health or substance abuse problems, but they may have not received services before their detention or been diagnosed as needing such services. Assessing those needs quickly and getting the services can help improve a youth’s chances of rehabilitation.

This study sought to evaluate a new, easy-to-use tool: the Voice DISC–IV, a version of the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for Children (DISC) that is self-administered, using a computer and headphones. The DISC is an extensively tested child and adolescent diagnostic interview, and the advantages of the Voice DISC-IV are that it does not require much staff time, and the scores are available automatically and immediately.

The study was conducted at St. Charles Reception Center in Illinois and the New Jersey Training School for Boys. Staff at those facilities collected assessments for 100 randomly selected male youth in Illinois and 200 in New Jersey. The researchers provided training, technical assistance, assessment materials and funding to pay for staff time.

The average participant in the study was 17 years old and in the ninth grade (two years behind the expected grade). Fifty-four percent were African-American. Eighty-eight percent were assessed within four weeks of their admission. Most had had previous contact with the juvenile justice system, and 28 percent had committed one or more substance-related offenses.
The Voice DISC-IV asked about 20 psychiatric disorders and took an average of 60 minutes to complete. The responses indicated many mental health and substance abuse problems.

Among the results: Forty-nine percent met the criteria for substance use and 32 percent were categorized as having a conduct disorder. Most of the substance abuse involved alcohol or marijuana. Nineteen percent had anxiety disorders, 9 percent had mood disorders, and 7 percent had symptoms of a major depression. Nine percent reported having suicidal thoughts in the past month, 3 percent reported attempting to commit suicide during the past month, and 12 percent reported attempting suicide at some point in their lives.

In addition, 9 percent had a specific phobia and 4 to 5 percent satisfied the criteria for each of the following: obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), panic disorder and post-traumatic stress.

The results were consistent with information that staff and researchers had about the youths’ substance abuse and were similar to the standard personal interview version of the DISC in terms of reported suicide attempts. The researchers concluded that the youth seemed comfortable with a self-report, which felt more private (even though the youth knew that the results would be provided to the facility).

The researchers did not examine whether being quickly diagnosed as having these problems resulted in more appropriate treatment or better outcomes. However, for facilities that want to have this essential information as quickly as possible, the Voice DISC seems to offer a relatively easy way to gather the information in a setting that may feel more comfortable for youth than an interview.

Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., is president of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families. Contact: Information about many Research Watch columns is available at