August 12 - 19, 1998

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Teen Researchers Find Surprising Answers

by Andy Hart

Why do so many Hartford kids drop out of school? Why do so many start having sex - and getting pregnant - at an early age? Experts have been trying to answer those questions for years. Now a group of 27 local teens have come up with their own answers.

The teens participated in a six-week summer research program sponsored by the Institute for Community Research's National Teen Action Research Center (NTARC) and officially presented their findings last Thursday, August 6. Using advanced research techniques such as computer mapping and photographic documentation, half of the young researchers tackled Hartford's soaring drop out rate. The rest studied the problem of under-aged sex.

Among their more interesting findings were:
Based on interviews with 77 teens, the average age for the first sexual encounter for African-American females was 15.3 years old, for African-American males it was 11.3, for Hispanic females 14.3 and 14.5 years for Hispanic males.

On the other hand, when asked what they felt the ideal age was for starting to have sex, females interviewed came up with an average age of 16.1 for males and 16.5 for females while males felt 15 was the right age for other males and 16 for females.

Based on this, the researchers found that of 77 teens interviewed, 16 had first had sex later than they said was ideal, 6 had it at the ideal age and 37 had it earlier than they considered ideal.

In questioning 77 teens about dropping out, the researcher found a major difference between African Americans and Hispanics. Overall, 31.8 of African-Americans said they had thought about dropping out as opposed to 60.7 percent of Hispanics. Broken out by gender, 26.3 of African-American males, 36 percent of African-American females, 45.5 percent of Hispanic males and 70 percent of Hispanic females said they'd considered leaving school before graduation.

Female teenagers with children had higher levels of self-esteem than males who had children and males and females who didn't have children.

Overall, the teens identified low self-esteem, stress, sexual abuse, exposure to social influences and the media as the key causes of sex at a young age. Teen pregnancy, violence, racism, peer pressure, harassment and work were cited as the main reasons for dropping out of school. As to why some kids decide to stay in school, the researchers found that a belief in education and the influence of friends and parents as the most important factors.

To illustrate the magnitude of Hartford's drop out rate, teen researcher Erica Wharton said 41 percent of her freshman class at Weaver High School did not make it through to graduation.

In addition to interviews with local teens, the research group also interviewed several experts, such as counselors, nurses and social workers at the Connecticut Children's Medical Center and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center.

In summing up the efforts of the young researchers, NTARC Director Sandra Sydlo said, "We expected a lot of you and you surpassed even that."

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