Study shows being active in school does not prevent exposure to violence

The new downtown Hartford campus will be built at the former Hartford Times buidling. The study was done at the School of Social Work at the Greater Hartford UConn campus. (Courtesy/UConn Today)

High levels of school engagement does not prevent exposure to direct community violence or bullying for African American adolescents, a recent study by a University of Connecticut professor found.

“We thought that young people who have been exposed to community violence that are having these positive school experiences will be less likely involved with bullying,” Caitlin Elsaesser, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, said.

The research focused on low-income African American high school students living in Chicago. They lived in communities where the average household income was less than the city average income. These communities were mostly made up of African Americans, 28.9 to 32.3 percent of which were single-mother households.

Elsaesser said that she wanted to focus on adolescents within low-income city communities because of the structural disadvantages they face and their inhered exposure to violence and victimization.

“We know that young people living at disadvantaged urban areas are at higher risk for community violence,” Elsaesser said.

Between 76 and 96 percent of urban adolescents report that they have been exposed to community violence, according to the study and estimates of lifetime exposure are even higher, ranging from 96 to 100 percent.

Adolescents living in communities with high rates of violence are at a similar risk for developing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress as those growing up in war zones, according to Elsaesser’s study.

Part of this could be due to the fact that, even when it comes to bullying, African Americans are more likely than other races to report both bullying perpetration and victimization, according to the article.

This means that African American adolescents are at increased risk of experiencing physical, psychological, social and educational harm, as well as emotional problems, behavioral problems and becoming violent due to community violence exposure and bullying combined.

Elsaesser said that she wanted to find out if good school experiences help to lessen the impact of community violence on bullying involvement for African American adolescents because adolescents spend most of their time at school.

“As social workers, we see that young people’s resources in their environment are really important, ” Elsaesser said.

Elsaesser focused on three forms of community violence: direct violence, witnessing violence and hearing about violence.

School engagement was measured by collecting information on how devoted the adolescents were to their academics, how they felt at school and how they acted. Elsaesser also measured if the same adolescents were being bullied or are bullies themselves.

The results were that school engagement only cushioned the link between hearing about violence and being bullied as well as the link between hearing about violence and being a bully.

Results showed that 68.3 percent of the African American adolescents reported some involvement in bullying perpetration, while, 47.5 percent of youth reported being bullied, according to the article.

Elsaesser said that these results surprised her, but that the results show just how complicated violence is, which can help to shape violence prevention.

“When we think about violence prevention, we really need to take seriously that [it] is complex,” Elsaesser said. “So[that means] really thinking about this multifaceted approach. It looks like academic engagement is part of the solution, but it is not a silver bullet. Silver bullets don’t exist in violence prevention research.”

Taking all of this information into account, Elsaesser said that researchers will probably need to look at multiple forms of protection aside from school and that these results must be interpreted carefully.

“There is nothing in itself of being African American that lead to high levels of violence exposure,” Elsaesser said, “but more kind of the structural disadvantage of these neighborhoods.”

Elsaesser said that researchers must be careful when studying populations that have experienced a history of oppression, racism and structural disadvantaged so that they do not reinforce negative stereotypes that suggests that the population is naturally one thing or the other.


Dario Cabrera is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at dario.cabrera@uconn.edu.