Adolescent High Risk Behavior: A Look at Regular Education, Learning Disabled, and Continuation High School Students

Article excerpt

This project examined the link between student status (i.e., regular education, learning disabled, and continuation high schoolers) and involvement in high risk behaviors. 251 students responded to demographic items requesting information on the number of felonies committed and the frequency of alcohol and drug use. Chi-square tests of association supported a significant relation between student status and participation in high risk behavior. The results of this project indicate a need to consider the specific predictors of involvement in high risk behaviors, as well as, a need to consider group differences in high risk behavior.

High risk behaviors, notably drug and/or alcohol use and criminal activities, tend to begin in adolescence. Despite the upheavals of this particular time frame, the majority of children pull through adolescence with little or no consequence and continue on to achieve a full and productive adult life. Children with learning disabilities, in general, are not always as fortunate as their non-learning disabled peers. Learning disabled (LD) children tend to experience more stress during adolescence due to an increased rate of academic failure (see Morrison & Cosden, 1997), a reduced sphere of social and emotional adjustment (see Epstein, Cullinan, & Lloyd, 1986), a lessened degree of self esteem (see Patten, 1983), and higher levels of depression (see Huntington & Bender, 1993). As a result, children with learning disabilities are often put into resource programs within their own schools, yet apart from their regular education peers (RE), in an effort to assist them on a more individual basis in achieving academic success, bolstering their self esteem, and preventing them from participating in high risk behavior.

For these LD students, feelings of isolation, as well as, poor social and emotional functioning are thought to increase the likelihood of participation in delinquent behaviors (Perlmutter, Crocker, Cordray, & Garstecki, 1983). For example, in a effort to gain peer acceptance, LD children are more apt to become involved in delinquent behavior than are their RE counterparts (Bryan, Pearl, & Fallon, 1989). Bryan: et al. (1989) asked junior high and high school students whether or not they would engage in a number of prosocial and antisocial activities when pressured by peers, despite the fact that they did not wish to participate at all. Results revealed that both RE and LD children indicated that they would be likely to participate in prosocial behaviors when pressured by peers. However, LD children were found to be more likely to engage in antisocial behavior at the insistence of peers than their RE counterparts.

In work that has specifically addressed the link between student status and alcohol/drug use, LD children were found to be more vulnerable to drug and alcohol use than were their RE peers. Karacostas and Fisher (1993) compared LD and RE adolescents using the Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory and reported that a significantly higher proportion of LD adolescents were considered chemically dependent.

Given the fact that LD students seem to experience greater difficulty (e.g., academic failure and low self esteem) during adolescence, there is a growing body of literature that suggests that these children may be more likely to engage in criminal behavior and to use drugs and alcohol more frequently than their RE peers. The purpose of this project is to examine the relation between school status and the frequency of criminal activity and drug/alcohol use among three groups of high school students. The current project extends the literature in this area of research by considering not only the regular education and learning disabled students, but by also examining continuation high school students.



251 junior and senior high school students (144 males and 107 females) from various high schools in a large southern California school district participated. The district is composed of three comprehensive high schools, one continuation high school, and several other alternative education programs. The sample was comprised of three student groups: 104 regular education students, 93 continuation high school students, and 54 learning disabled students. Continuation high schoolers were generally transferred from the traditional high school due to credit deficiencies and/or rule violations. Overall, the school district is quite diverse and the sample was reflective in its diversity: 42% white, 29% Latino, 9% Asian, 4% African-American, and 16% other.

The students in the overall sample were taken from the various high schools in the district, and it is important to point out that the sampling procedure was not random. Site administrators, teachers, and authors made the decision as to what classes would be an appropriate fit for measuring a cross-section of the schools, and participants were then chosen as members of a class which would be reflective of the district population as a whole.


Students completed a demographic questionnaire that asked them to indicate the number of times they had committed a felony crime, the number of times they use alcohol per week, and the number of times they use drugs (e.g., marijuana and cocaine) per week, on average. It is important to note that students were asked to include felonies for which they had not been apprehended as well as those for which they were arrested. The item concerning the commission of a felony crime was answered on a 4-point Likert type scale. A score of one indicated that a student had never committed a felony; a score of two indicated one or two felonies had been committed during their life time. A score of three indicated three or four felonies and a score of four indicated five or more felonies. The alcohol and drug items were rated on a 5-point scale; a score of one indicated that the student had never used alcohol or drugs. A score of two indicated alcohol and drug use of less than once per week, on average; a score of three indicated once or twice per week, a score of four indicated three to five times per week, and a score of five indicated six or seven times per week, on average.


Participants completed the demographic survey as part of a larger project examining the relation between student status (i.e., regular education vs. learning disabled vs. continuation) and intrinsic motivation. Following district approval of the project, parents were informed through a letter of the potential administration of the scales, as well as rationale, goals, procedures, and confidentiality. Negative consent procedures were employed in this project as there was a concern that positive consent would not yield a large enough sample.

During the administration of the survey instrument, standard instructions were provided to the class, and all students were encouraged to answer all items. As a result of low reading levels, survey items were read to learning disabled students.


For analytic purposes, the number of felonies committed and the frequency of alcohol and drug use were collapsed into three categories. Thus, for the felony data participants were classified according to the following groups: never committed a felony, committed one or two, and committed 3 or more felonies. Likewise, for the alcohol and drug data there were three groups: never use, use once or twice per week, and use three or more times per week.


Table 1 contains the percentages of students indicating involvement in high risk behaviors. Overall, the regular education and learning disabled students reported lower levels of involvement with criminal activity and alcohol and drug use when compared to continuation students.

Table 1
Percentage of Students Reporting Involvement in High Risk Behavior

Student Group         Frequency of use/week or number of
                           felonies committed
                      Never   1 or 2   3 or more

Learning Disabled
  Criminal Activity   64.2%    18.8      17.0
  Alcohol Use         40.7     38.9      20.4
  Drug Use            83.3     9.3        7.4
Regular Education
  Criminal Activity   68.0    20.(1)     1.2.0
  Alcohol Use         51.0     36.5      112.5
  Drug Use            87.5     6.7        5.8
  Criminal Activity   31.5     22.8      45.7
  Alcohol Use         17.2     38.7      44.1
  Drug Use            43.0     22.6      34.4

In order to assess the relationship between student status (i.e., regular education vs. learning disabled vs. continuation student) and the indices of high risk behavior (i.e., commission of felonies and alcohol and drug use), three chi-square tests of association were performed The chi-square for the number of felonies committed was significant, [chi square] (4, N = 245) = 36.784, p [is less than] .01; Cramer's v = .274. The chi-square for the frequency of alcohol use was significant, [chi square] (4, N = 25l) = 35.621, p [is less than] .01; Cramer's v = .266. Lastly, the chi-square for the frequency of drug use was significant, [chi square] (4, N= 251) = 53.386, p [is less than] .01; Cramer's v = .326.


The results of this project supports the hypothesis that student status (i.e., regular education vs. learning disabled vs. continuation) is linked to involvement with high risk behavior (e.g., alcohol/drug use and criminal activity). In particular, the findings for RE and LD students concur with previous research which found that alcohol/drug use and criminal activity tended to be higher among LD students than RE students although the differences are sometimes not very large (see Karacostas & Fisher, 1993). What is particularly notable with the current data, however, is when the continuation students are considered. Overall, these students reported much greater involvement with high risk behaviors. For example, 68% of the continuation sample reported that they had been involved in one or more felonies; this percentage compares to 36% for the LD and 32% for the RE students. Similarly, a higher percentage of continuation students were using alcohol and/or drugs (once or more per week) when compared to either the LD or RE students.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the current project. First, with respect to alcohol use, we see that almost 50% of each student group reported a frequency of once or more per week. Although this statistic may seem high at first glance (especially for RE students), it is succinctly put in perspective by Arnett (1992) who suggests that alcohol consumption is a common feature of the adolescent period. Viewed in this light, the frequency of alcohol use essentially becomes a conventional hallmark of adolescent development. Second, although the percentage of high risk behavior involvement differed for RE and LD students, the differences were relatively small when examining specific behaviors (i.e., criminal activity and drug use); however, the differences are much greater when the two groups are compared to continuation students. This may suggest that LD and RE students may be more similar to one another than to continuation students when considering indices of adolescent adjustment.

What is not clear from the current project are the specific factors that contribute to the observed differences among the three groups of students. It is certainly possible that variables such as increased academic failure, poor social and emotional adjustment, and greater depression result in differences in involvement with high risk behavior. These factors may be especially salient among the continuation students who have been removed from the traditional high school setting. Thus, future work will need to address the efficacy of different variables as predictors of involvement in high risk behaviors. Moreover, subsequent work should more closely consider continuation students as the likelihood of involvement in high risk behavior appears to be especially high within this group.


Arnett, J. (1992). Reckless behavior in adolescence: A developmental perspective. Developmental Review, 12, 339-373.

Bryan, T. H., Pearl, R., & Fallon, P. (1989), conformity to peer pressure by students with learning disabilities: A replication. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22, 458-459.

Epstein, M. H., Cullinan, D., & Lloyd, J. W. (1986), Behavior problem patterns among the learning disabled: III. Replication across age and sex. Learning Disability Quarterly, 9, 48-54.

Huntington, D & Bender, W. (1993). Adolescents with learning disabilities at risk? Emotional well-being, depression, and suicide. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 159-166.

Karacostas, D. D. & Fisher, G. L. (1993). Chemical dependency in students with and without learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 26, 491-495.

Morrison, G. M. & Cosden M. A. (1997). Risk, resilience, and adjustment of individuals with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 20, 43-60.

Patten, M. (1983). Relationships between self esteem, anxiety, and achievement in young learning disabled students. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 16, 43-45.

Perlmutter, B., Crocker, J., Cordray, D., & Garstecki, D. (1983). Sociometric status and related personality characteristics of main streamed learning disabled adolescents. Learning Disability Quarterly, 6, 20-30.

California State University, San Bernardino
San Bernardino, California 94207-2397


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.