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Young people in Cornell researcher's urban-community study say they don't feel respected, cared about and trusted in their community

More than half the urban teenagers surveyed in a study by a Cornell University researcher say they feel disconnected from their community. The reasons for this come, in part, from feeling discriminated against by unknown adults on the streets, in businesses and by the police.

The young people also report feeling disconnected from their schools. The older the students, the less connected they say they feel.

"Many young people in this study believed that they were individually and collectively invisible to many adults and adult systems," says Janis Whitlock, a Cornell research associate reporting her findings in her doctoral dissertation. She received her doctorate in August 2003 from the Department of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell.

"The reasons for this feeling of invisibility are complex, but some of it comes from feeling discriminated [against] by adults in the community and feeling targeted for surveillance by local businesses, for example, simply by virtue of their age," says Whitlock.

The research was carried out in an urban community in upstate New York and based on a cross-sectional survey of 350 young people in grades 8, 10 and 12 and of 110 students in 11 focus groups.

"Connectedness -- the extent to which youth perceive a sense of belonging and support to school and community -- is important," says Whitlock. "Connectedness to school, for example, has been shown to protect against violence, risky sexual behavior, drug use and dropping out of school. Youths who possess a sense of belonging are more likely to work harder and be involved in positive activities in and outside of school."

She adds, "Young people want to be regarded as a legitimate constituency in school and town with the right to be seen and heard. Yet, the majority of reflections on community life, for example, were negative. Discrimination by unknown adults because of age, negative experiences with the police, the perception of not being welcomed in public, the desire for more youth voice in community affairs and opportunities to socialize, or at least to have better access to the opportunities that existed, were constant refrains."

Whitlock's other findings:

  • School and community connectedness are strongly interrelated.
  • For school connectedness, adult-youth relationships, classroom practices, institutional policies and practices, school curricula and academic pressure were the most influential factors.
  • For community connectedness, the most influential factors were adult-youth relations, power and voice in community affairs, attitudes toward youth in public spaces and opportunities for creative engagement.
  • High School seniors in a nontraditional program for students at risk of dropping out of school felt much more connected, largely because they had more meaningful roles in their school and strong intergenerational relationships.

Whitlock's dissertation on school and community connectedness won the 2004 Hershel D. Thornburg Dissertation Award for its "outstanding scholastic promise in research on adolescence." Her research on school and community will be presented March 13 at the meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence in Baltimore and again in April at the American Educational Research meeting in San Diego. A short publication based on the implications of her research, "Fostering School Connectedness," is available on the Web at .

The research was funded by the College of Human Ecology at Cornell, the Henry A. Murray Research Center of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and an American Association of University Women's Education Foundation American Fellowship.

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