School Climate and Adolescent Drug Use: Mediating Effects of Violence Victimization in the Urban High School Context

Robert J. Reid; N. Andrew Peterson; Joseph Hughey; Pauline Garcia-Reid


J Prim Prev. 2006;27(3):281-292. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


This study tested the mediating effects of violence victimization in the relationship between school climate and adolescent drug use. The hypothesized path model fit data collected from a probability sample of urban high school students (N = 586) participating in an evaluation of a violence prevention program funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Findings indicated that the lack of enforcement of school rules and the presence of unsafe places in and around the school influenced adolescent drug use directly and indirectly through their effects on violence victimization.

Editors' Strategic Implications: This research confirms the importance of the environment as a contributor to violence victimization. Violence victimization is obviously of concern in its own right, but in addition, these data indicate that it also contributes to adolescent drug use. School administrators should be aware that unsafe places in schools and the failure to enforce school rules may affect such victimization and drug use.


School-related exposure to violence is a common occurrence for children and adolescents growing up in many U.S. urban areas. A recent survey of high school students, Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2004), suggests that more than one-third of respondents reported being in a physical fight at school in the past 12 months, with 4% of these resulting in serious injuries requiring medical attention. The magnitude of this problem stimulated Federal legislation, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (SDFSC), which specified that by the year 2000 "every school in the United States will be free of violence and unauthorized presence of firearms, drugs, and alcohol and will offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning" (National Education Goals Panel, 1999, p. 4). A concomitant problem plaguing at least 9.5 million students across the U.S. (60%) is the availability and prevalence of illicit substances on high school campuses. Recent findings from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 2003) highlight a link between youth violence and substance use by showing that youths aged 12-17 who reported violent behaviors in the past-year also reported higher rates of past-year illicit drug use compared with youths who did not report violent behaviors.

Key to addressing successfully these twin scourges will be evidence-based programs and policies aimed to develop school capacity to implement and sustain effective programs (Mihalic, Abigail, Irwin, Ballard, & Elliot, 2004). To meet this objective, SAMHSA has initiated the National Registry of Effective Prevention Programs project as a systematic way to identify, promote, and implement model violence and substance abuse prevention programs. Model program status requires that protocols are carefully implemented, thoroughly evaluated, and produce consistent, positive, and replicable results, which are readily disseminated to the broader prevention community. Consistent with the mandates stipulated by the Blueprints for SDFSC, the U.S. Department of Education has emphasized the importance of adopting prevention protocols with proven effectiveness (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). However, a 1998 Department of Education study found that only 58% of school districts considered research on the effectiveness of prevention-related activities, and only 35% of districts defined research-based prevention in a way that is as rigorous as the Department's guidelines.

Research examining possible links between violence and drug use has consistently found a strong relationship among adolescents and young adults (Ellickson & McGuigan, 2000; Elliott, Huizinga, & Menard, 1989; Kingery, Mirzaee, Pruitt, & Hurley, 1991; Valois, McKeown, Garrison, & Vincent, 1995). Elliott et al. (1989) presented national baseline epidemiological and etiological data showing the joint occurrence of delinquent behavior and alcohol and drug use. Their seminal work further revealed that not only was there a relationship between delinquent behavior and drug use, but that there was an escalation from minor delinquency and "gateway" drug use to more serious offenses and increased use of illicit substances. Kingery et al. (1991) surveyed 1,004 eighth and tenth grade students in 23 rural communities and found that youths who took drugs also took more risks, carried weapons more often, engaged in more fights, and were more likely to be victimized. In a representative sample of U.S. 8th and 10th graders, Kingery, Pruitt, and Hurley (1992) examined the relationship between violence, drug use, and victimization. They found that adolescent drug users were more inclined to engage in physical altercations with their peers, take more risks that made them susceptible to assault, and were also more likely to be assaulted at school and victimized outside of school supervision. Similarly, Valois et al. (1995) analyzed the prevalence and correlates of violent behavior in a sample of high school students who completed the Youth Risk Behavior Survey administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among a sample of 4,147 White and Black adolescents in 9th through 12th grade, the strongest predictors of fighting and carrying a weapon were binge drinking and alcohol use respectively. These findings were replicated in another study that examined data from the 1995 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (Lowry et al., 1999). Additionally, Furlong, Caas, Corral, Chung, and Bates (1997) reported findings from the California Drug Use Survey and the California School Climate Survey that indicated both self-reported substance use and perception of frequency of substance use on school property were significantly associated with school violence.

Although prior research and logic suggest a relationship between drug use and school violence, the SDFSC was established without direct evidence of this relationship and without an understanding of possible and important nuances involved in such a relationship (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, 2001; Furlong et al., 1997). Although interpersonal violence has been extensively studied in some community settings, fewer studies have addressed how this relationship manifests in school settings (Lowry et al., 1999), particularly in urban high schools. It should also be noted that a majority of these prior studies measured perceptions of how frequently school violence occurred and on students' involvement as perpetrators of violence at school, not personal experiences of violence victimization and school climate. Our study attempts to enhance understanding of this critical public health issue by exploring the experiences of violence victimization and school climate among a racially and ethnically diverse sample of urban high school students.

Our study adopts a conceptual framework that was originally proposed by Pentz and colleagues (1989) to guide the development of a multi-community trial for the primary prevention of adolescent drug use. Findings from this comprehensive community-based program, that included media/publicity campaigns, education services for youth and parents, prevention-related skills development, community organizing, and advocacy of substance abuse policy changes, were an early suggestion that preventive interventions aimed at the individual should also consider the counteracting social and physical environment influences that may contribute to violence.

Pentz (1995, 1999) described this integrated theoretical perspective as the interaction of person (P), situation (S), and environment factors (E) that are bounded by a community. Although Pentz's P, S, E framework was originally developed for the context of a substance abuse prevention program, it provides a conceptual lens to examine school violence by suggesting both risk factors and protective factors, termed "intervention mediators" (Pentz, 1995). As shown in a recent study conducted by CASA (2001), one person-related risk factor was perceptions of minimal consequences associated with drug use. In this study, students were more likely to smoke, drink, or use drugs when they believed the harm associated with use was low. Possible person-related intervention mediators relevant for violence prevention might include participation in extracurricular activities, such as school clubs, organizations, and volunteer activities (Peterson & Reid, 2003). Importantly, from a primary prevention perspective, situation-related risk factors include variables such as verbal bullying while on the school premise (e.g., name calling, laughing at you), or being the victim of a violent act (e.g., pushed, slapped on purpose). Situation-related intervention mediators could include curricula on social skills development, efforts to change social norms about bullying, development of clear and specific rules and consequences, and increased supervision and presence from parents (Nansel et al., 2001; Spivak & Prothrow-Stith, 2001). Pentz's model also suggests that the physical environment may serve as a risk factor for both school violence and adolescent drug use through unsafe or "unowned" places in schools, such as hallways, dining areas, and parking lots, where school personnel are not typically present (Astor, Meyer, & Behre, 1999). Conversely, environment-related intervention mediators might include teacher-generated and implemented interventions that increase the role of students and other school community members in reclaiming "unowned" school territories (Astor et al., 1999).

To inform prevention programs about how to implement robust programs that promote safe school climates, there is a need to understand the subtle interplay of individual, situational, and environmental factors involved in violence and substance abuse within school contexts. In the present study, we employed a path model to examine suggested P, S, and E relationships among a sample largely comprised of Hispanic and African American students. Person-related (i.e., participation in extracurricular activities), situation-related (i.e., verbal bullying, violence victimization, and social norms against drug use), and environment-related (i.e., unsafe places in and around the school and lack of enforcement of school rules) variables were used as predictors of adolescent drug use with violence victimization and verbal bullying as mediators. We assessed whether violence victimization and verbal bullying were critical mechanisms through which the school environment affected adolescent drug use.


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