Sex and drugs in the suburbs

Sex, drinking, drug abuse and delinquency occur at similar rates in suburban and urban schools, concludes a new Manhattan Institute study.

Parents are fleeing urban schools not just because of low academic performance, but also because they believe suburban public schools are safer and more wholesome.Ê This study finds that fleeing from the city to the suburbs doesnÕt produce much difference in the level of these problems one finds at local public high schools.

Two thirds of all suburban and urban 12th graders have had sex, but pregnancy rates differ: 20 percent of urban 12th grade girls have been pregnant compared to 14 percent of suburban 12th graders.

About Joanne


  1. This looks like a pretty well done study and the authors are top notch. There are three points I was curious about though.

    1.) When the authors mention that “We disregarded all responses that were not specific answers, such as when students refused to respond, or responded that they didn’t know the answer” why do the authors not mention the number or respondents who did not give a specific answer? It is traditional to test for bias and no such test is mentioned. It is possible that the no-response answers were much greater for one group than the other. Without the authors supplying that information there is no way to tell.

    2.) “Finally, population weight data were provided as part of the study. By applying these weights to the student data, we were able to analyze the data in a way that is more accurately representative of the U.S. population as a whole.”

    I wonder if this means that they “normalized” the data in some way to have urban and suburban schools reflect the same racial, economic, and various other factors that you would expect to also influence delinquency factors? If so, the actual rates in the urban vs. suburban areas could be quite different before the adjustments.

    3.) Was there any attempt to control for students who have left the system? It could be that one group or the other actually has a higher drop out rate and/or suspension rate as a result of pregnancy or drug use than the other. For example, if suburban schools are less tolerent of drug use and expel those caught then the survey would show that they had fewer drug users, which I guess would be technically correct.

  2. PJ/Maryland says:

    Joanne makes a good point in noting the difference between the urban and suburban pregnancy rates. Although the overall pregnancy rate (% of all HS girls who have been pregnant was 10.5% in urban schools and 9.1% in suburban), the difference in 12th grade is very noticeable: 20.2% vs 13.7% of all female students, and 29.8% vs 20.6% of those who’ve had intercourse.

    (Actually, looking at these numbers, something appears to be off. Urban girls in every grade are more likely to become pregnant if they have sex. Suburban girls are more likely to have sex in 9th grade, but I don’t see that as big enough to bring the overall pregnancy rates together. Are suburban girls getting pregnant before high school, or did someone add something wrong?)

    Anyway, it would be interesting to know why there are more urban pregnancies. Birth control? Sex education at school? Or it could be something like “frequency of sex”, which the survey doesn’t cover. (Ie a 12th grade girl who has sex once or twice is counted the same as one who has slept with dozens of guys.)

    This points up one drawback to the data series. There’re two questions about smoking: have you ever had a few puffs, and have you smoked regularly. This tries to draw a distinction between regular smokers and people who’ve only experimented. There’s no similar question pair for drinking or drugs or sex. For the first two, there’re questions about driving while drunk/high and being at school while drunk/high; perhaps these are supposed to be equivalents? And I suppose one could take the pregnancy/VD questions as a substitute for a “frequent sex” question.

    This in turn makes it hard to reach the conclusion that authors do. It may be that suburban students are just as likely as urban ones to have had sex once or twice, but are less likely to have it frequently. In that case, parents might sensibly choose to move to the suburbs. A similar argument could be made for drugs and alcohol, though the drunk/high at school question suggests there’s less difference in this area. (Or even that suburban parents should move to the city…)

    Some other minor quibbles: students are compared by grade, not age. It’s possible that one group or the other tends to have older students, eg who dropped out and have returned after a year or two to get their degree.

    Also, urban and suburban are not black-and-white terms. The Baltimore and DC school systems, for example, include desirable schools in non-“concrete jungle” settings. Likewise, closer in suburbs can have aging schools with time-serving teachers and other problems.

    With this data set, it might be possible to compare the answers for a different two groups: kids in new (less than 20 years old) school buildings vs those in older buildings. Or better, break groups down by average teacher experience and see if any effect is noticeable.

  3. So how can a report like this, done by researchers associated with “quality” schools, be done in such way that the results are not very useful?

  4. Oh well, it could be worse:

  5. It starts with parents and parents in the surburbs are just as bad if not worse

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