Clearer Picture Emerges of 'At-Risk' Youths ; Poverty and Race Aren't the Best Ways to Predict Problem Behavior, Study Shows

Article excerpt

It's 3 p.m. Do you know where your teenager is?

If not, that could be a fairly good indication that he or she may end up in trouble. It turns out that kids who hang out with friends unsupervised and who are failing in school are at much higher risk than their peers.

Sounds like common sense, doesn't it? But for years, researchers have used race, income, and family structure as shortcuts for understanding adolescent behavior. While no one ever said it directly, the implication was always there: If a teen is black, poor, and from a broken family, he's more likely to end up in trouble.

Now, the findings of the largest study ever of American teenagers have turned that assumption on its head, giving parents and educators a whole new set of tools to help understand and prevent dangerous behaviors, from substance abuse to violence to early sexual activity.

In fact, school failure, large amounts of time spent "hanging out," and friends who engage in risky behavior themselves are three to eight times more likely to predict trouble for teens than race, income, and family structure combined, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, released yesterday in Washington.

"When we looked at how much knowing someone's family structure or race or income status tells us about a kid's behavior, the answer is: not much," says Robert Blum, one of the nation's leading authorities on adolescent behavior. "But looking at the other factors, you're able to explain 20, 30, or 40 percent of behavior. It's just hugely different."

Dr. Blum, the lead researcher on the report, which is known as the ADD Health study, adds that focusing on race and other traditional measures can inadvertently mask underlying causes - like school failure - that can be addressed.

"Oversimplifying also identifies some kids who aren't at risk and leaves out large numbers of kids who truly are," he says.

Take Brian Lutz. He fits few of the traditional stereotypes about troubled teens. A football and lacrosse player, he's white, lives in a leafy, well-tended Long Island suburb, and his parents earn a good living, although they recently divorced.

Nonetheless, Brian started getting high and drinking regularly in the seventh grade. He's now spending his senior year in high school in an intensive drug- and alcohol-treatment program.

But if his parents and teachers had been aware of the findings of the ADD Health study, Brian's troubles might have been avoided. …