Fights and Vandalism Shown to be Related to Drinking at School

Buffalo, NY – Interpersonal aggression and vandalism in high school are directly related to alcohol use during school hours, according to researchers at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) and Canisius College.

The study showed that school aggression was higher among male high school students who were described as rebellious, had a weak sense of school identification and low academic achievement, and who engaged in alcohol use during the school day.

During the school year, 25 percent of the students in the study reported alcohol use at least once during school hours. Twenty seven percent reported physical fighting at least once with other students and six percent of the students reported physical fighting with teachers.

Overall, 88 percent of the male participants in the study reported at least one occasion of verbal or physical aggression with a student or teacher at school compared to 61 percent of the females. Similarly, 58 percent of the male students engaged in at least one act of vandalism at school compared to 22 percent of the females.

Kristin V. Finn, Ph.D., first author on the report, noted that “school-related alcohol use is a large, but understudied problem in American schools. This investigation examined factors related to aggression at school, particularly the role of context-specific alcohol use.” A former RIA postdoctoral fellow, Finn is an assistant professor in the Graduate Education and Leadership Department at Canisius College.

Two hundred and eight adolescents were recruited from 37 high schools in Erie County, N.Y. to participate in a broad investigation of health-related behaviors and outcomes among adolescents in work and school settings. The majority of the students were in grades 11 and 12; 58 percent were enrolled in academic programs, and 15 percent and 20 percent were in general and vocational programs, respectively. Of the schools from which participants were recruited, 93 percent were public schools and more than half (54 percent) were schools in urban settings.

Results of the research were reported in the NASSP Bulletin (National Association of Secondary School Principals) of September 2003. Published quarterly, the NASSP Bulletin is an award-winning scholarly journal for middle- and secondary-school leaders.

“Alcohol use in `achievement settings’ such as school may be related to aspects of the environment,” according to Michael R. Frone, Ph.D., RIA senior scientist who was principal investigator on the study and co-author of the report.

“Similar research has shown that drinking by adolescents in work settings is more likely when tolerated by peers, when the environment is boring or stressful, when there is low social control or when alcohol is available.” Students will drink in school or come to school impaired when the environment affords them the opportunity to do so without detection by school officials, he said.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from this study was that interpersonal aggression and vandalism at school were related to alcohol use only during school hours. Drinking outside of school was not associated with aggression at school, suggesting that alcohol use may not have a “blanket effect” on all adolescent behavior. Frone said that to understand the effect of alcohol on behavior in a specific context such as school, it is important to assess the use of alcohol and alcohol-related impairment in the school context.

Personal characteristics such as rebelliousness, risk-taking and impulsivity were shown to be associated with both aggression and vandalism.
Finn and Frone suggest the need for school administrators to be aware of substance use problems at school. In addition, they suggest consistency and fairness when dealing with students who use alcohol and other drugs in school. Discipline policies that are perceived as fair are more likely to promote positive student behavior.

They said the use of zero-tolerance policies in schools is widespread because they are firm and appear to be fair to all. However, the effectiveness of these policies has been questioned because strict adherence to these policies increases student suspensions without providing rehabilitation. The most effective disciplinary policies, besides being fair and consistent, they noted, should be instructive with the goal of improving student behavior and school safety.

Finn said prevention efforts can be enhanced by integrating them into the normal school operations through improved staff training and better standardization of prevention methods. Comprehensive school-based approaches to substance use and violence prevention are also necessary components to prevention. She said effective programs include teaching self-management and drug-resistance skills, identifying pressures to use alcohol and drugs, and teaching impulse control and anger management. In addition, programs should encourage school connectedness by teaching prosocial skills and respect for others.

Future research will consider what school characteristics are associated with substance use in school; what school sanctions are needed to effectively increase school safety; and what individual factors lead to students’ defiance of school rules regarding substance use.

The Research Institute on Addictions has been a leader in the study of addictions since 1970 and a research center of the University at Buffalo since 1999.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York. UB’s more than 27,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs.