Experience of violence

A R T I C L E

YOUTH EXPOSED TO VIOLENCE: THE ROLE OF PROTECTIVE FACTORS

Kimberly A.S. Howard and Stephanie L. Budge Department of Counseling Psychology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Kevin M. McKay The Miriam Hospital, Department of Behavioral Medicine and Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University

Using a sample of 174 inner-city urban high school students, this study examined the degree to which family and peer support would moderate the negative impact of exposure to violence on academic performance, symptoms of distress, and persistence intentions. Over 94% of the students reported having been exposed to at least one form of community violence at some point in their lives. Using hierarchical linear regression, the results indicated that family support provided a protective-stabilizing moderating effect between exposure to violence and symptoms of distress. Peer support was found to have a protective-stabilizing moderating effect between exposure to violence and persistence intentions. Although exposure to violence and persistence intentions were both related to grade point average, family and peer support were not found to moderate the impact of violence exposure and grades. �C 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

It is an unfortunate reality that many inner-city urban youth in the United States are either the victims of violence or witnesses to violent acts. A U.S. Department of Justice report indicated that over 70% of inner-city youth have witnessed a violent crime and over 50% have been a victim of one (Jenkins, 1995). Furthermore, the report identified youth ages 12–15 as being the victims of violent crime more than any other age group. More recently Flannery and colleagues (Flannery, Wester, & Singer, 2004)

Correspondence to: Kimberley A.S. Howard, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Department of Counseling & Psychology, 244 Schreiner Hall, 115 N. Orchard Street, Madison, WI 53715. E-mail: khoward@education.wisc.edu

JOURNAL OF COMMUNITY PSYCHOLOGY, Vol. 38, No. 1, 63–79 (2010)

Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com).

& 2009 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/jcop.20352

 

 

examined rates of exposure to violence within school settings and found 64% of elementary, 83% of middle, and 87% of high school youth, reported witnessing violent acts in school during the past year.

The impact of chronic violence on youth is multifaceted and pervasive, and includes negative ramifications for the health, mental health, and academic achievement of affected youth (Garbarino, Dubrow, Kostelny, & Pardo, 1992). Research in this area has clearly demonstrated that youth who experience repeated exposure to violence demonstrate increased levels of anxiety (Buckner, Bassuk, & Beardslee, 2004; Fitzpatrick, 1993), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms (Fitzpatrick & Boldizar, 1993), and depression (Buckner et al., 2004; Moses, 1999). The demonstration of acting out and aggressive behaviors both at school (Thompson & Massat, 2005) and more generally (Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 1998) by children and youth is related to exposure to violence, and a number of studies have demonstrated a negative relationship between violence exposure and academic achievement (e.g., Schwartz & Gorman, 2003; Thompson & Massat, 2005).

Clearly, exposure to violence constitutes a formidable challenge to the wellbeing of children and youth. Research in this area has begun to explore the pathways by which exposure to violence leads to negative outcomes for youth, such as through its impact on self-esteem, the perception of chronic danger, and the ability to focus or think clearly (e.g., Buckner et al., 2004; van der Kolk, 2003). Of equal interest to scholars and interventionists in child and youth development is an understanding of the factors that may moderate, or weaken, the impact of exposure to violence on negative outcomes. Such a perspective is consistent with and guided by models of resilience and protective processes (e.g., Masten & Coatsworth, 1998) as well as developmental assets (e.g., Benson et al., 2006). These models theorize that the impact of risk factors, such as exposure to violence, can be moderated by protective factors that may be internal (e.g., a competency developed by the child) or external to the child (e.g., caring adults in the home and in the community). Futhermore, Fergus and Zimmerman (2005) describe several ways in which protective factors may moderate the relationship between a risk factor and a given outcome. In the compensatory model a resource/ asset offsets the negative impact of a risk factor by having a direct effect on an outcome. In the protective factor model the resource/asset weakens the relationship between the risk factor and the outcome. Finally, in the protective-stabilizing model, the resource/ asset nullifies the relationship between the risk factor and the outcome.

SOCIAL SUPPORT

Common in the resilience literature is a focus on the role that supportive relationships play in the positive development of children and youth. Indeed, the role of support is well-documented in the health (Hale, Hannum, & Espelage, 2005; Wallston, Alagna, DeVellis, & DeVellis, 1983), mental health (Wight, Botticello, & Aneshenel, 2006; Wright, 2006), and educational literature (e.g., Demo & Acock, 1996; Steinberg, Lamborn, Dornbusch, & Darling, 1992). Although there has been some attention to the impact of supportive relationships in the context of exposure to violence, this literature has at times yielded mixed results (cf. Berman, Kurtines, Silverman, & Serafini, 1996; White, Bruce, Farrell, & Kliewer, 1998) and has focused primarily on psychological outcomes (e.g., anxiety: White et al., 1998; depression: Buckner et al., 2004; and posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]: Berman et al., 1996). Academic

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outcomes have rarely been the focus of interest in this body of research. Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine the moderating effect of two types of social support—family and peer—on the relationship between exposure to violence and academic outcomes, distress, and persistence intentions among a sample of high school age adolescents.

In the literature examining resources/assets that work to counteract or weaken the effects of exposure to violence on youth outcomes, the support that youth believe they receive from others has been a variable of much interest (see, for example, O’Donnell, Schwab-Stone, & Muyeed, 2002). It has been found that for youth exposed to violence, the amount of general support (Berman et al., 1996) and family support (Ozer & Weinstein, 2004) perceived by youth was negatively related to severity of PTSD symptoms. The impact of support by peers, however, is unclear, with research yielding conflicting results. For example, O’Donnell and colleagues (O’Donnell et al., 2002) found that perceptions of high peer support were positively related to substance use and school misconduct, whereas Seidman et al. (1999) found that for urban, low-income youth it is the type of peer group from which one receives support that determines the nature of one’s outcomes.

This study will focus upon two types of social support: perceived availability of support from family and peers. As suggested by Bronfenbrenner (1979), the family and peer microsystems serve as highly influential factors in youth development. Cauce, Felner, and Primavera (1982) explain that the role of social support in promoting development can differ in part based upon the type of available support. Thus, separate measures of family and peer support were included in this study to allow an examination of their individual contributions.

EXPOSURE TO VIOLENCE

Scholars studying the impact of violence on youth development typically reference both direct experience of violence and indirect experience of violence. Direct experiences are usually described as instances of victimization,; indirect exposure is defined as being a witness to violence. However, as explained by Buka, Stichick, Birdthistle, and Earls (2001) there is much disagreement in the literature as to what qualifies as indirect exposure to violence. Definitions of indirect exposure range from witnessing events (such as muggings or stabbings), to hearing about instances of violence, to viewing violence through the media. For purposes of this study viewing of violent acts on television, in the movies, or on video games were not included. Exposure to violence focused instead on the experiencing, witnessing, or being told about actual violent events.

ACADEMIC OUTCOMES

School is, in essence, the ‘‘work’’ of children and youth. Outside of the home, it is the context in which most youth spend the greatest amount of their time, and educational success is related to a number of quality of life outcomes, such as rates of future employment and ability to live free from poverty (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2005; U.S. Census Bureau, 2005). Although there are a number of indicators used to measure academic success, grade point average is the most critical for most youth, as it determines whether courses are passed or failed and whether one earns the credits

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needed to complete a grade level and graduate from high school. For this reason, we will include GPA as an outcome of interest in this study. We will examine the impact that exposure to violence has on students’ cumulative grades as well as the ability of social support to moderate this relationship. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that the cumulative nature of the GPA makes it difficult to identify the effects of a particular circumstance or intervention. Thus, we have chosen to include another measure of academic commitment in this study: persistence intentions. Persistence intentions reflect a student’s intentions and commitment to complete his or her education. Also referred to as persistence attitudes or decisions, persistence intentions have been studied in the contexts of academic and career pursuits (e.g., Castillo et al., 2006; Gloria & Ho, 2003; Pizzolato, 2007), but to our knowledge have not been examined in the context of exposure to violence.

SYMPTOMS OF DISTRESS

Much attention has been paid in the educational literature regarding children being ready to learn when they arrive at school (e.g., Alaimo, Olson, & Frongillo, 2001; Boyer, 1993). Students who are hungry, tired, worried, fearful, or sad are less able to focus on learning and are less likely to perform to the best of their abilities. Given the clear relationship between exposure to violence and the experience of distress in youth (Buckner et al., 2004; Fitzpatrick & Boldizar, 1993; Garbarino et al., 1992; Moses, 1999), we examined the impact that exposure to violence has on students’ reports of symptoms of distress as well as the ability of social support to moderate this relationship.

PRESENT STUDY

This study sought to contribute to the empirical literature that examines the relationship between exposure to violence and adolescent outcomes in several ways. First, it examines whether and how family and peer support moderates the impact of exposure to violence on grades, distress, and persistence intentions. By doing so, it also extends into adolescence the literature’s interest in academic variables as outcomes of interest. Further, it uses a school-based sample of nonreferred youth, thus contributing to the generalizability of the results. Finally, the inclusion of urban, diverse, low- income youth allows us to add to the growing knowledge base on the impact that exposure to violence has on this particular group.

Four hypotheses were examined. First, it was hypothesized that higher reported levels of exposure to violence would be related to lower grades and reports of lower persistence intentions and higher levels of distress. It was hypothesized that higher reported levels of family and peer support would relate to higher grades, higher reported persistence intentions, and lower levels of distress, respectively. It was further hypothesized that higher reported levels of persistence intentions would relate to higher grades. Finally, it was hypothesized that family and peer support would moderate the relationship between exposure to violence and our three outcomes of grade point average (GPA), persistence intentions, and symptoms of distress.

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METHOD

Participants

Data for this study were drawn from an existing data set of urban ninth grade youth. Participants included 174 ninth grade students (97 female, 76 male, and 1 not indicated) from a large midwestern city. The data set from which our data were drawn did not include the racial and ethnic make-up of the participants in our sample. However, given that the data were collected in classrooms during the regular school day as part of an ongoing school-wide classroom-based curriculum, it can be assumed that our sample closely mirrors the larger student population in this high school [68% Latino, 20% African American, 6% White, 4% Asian American (primarily Hmong), 1% Native American, and 1% other]. Eighty-four percent of students in this high school qualify for free or reduced lunch—an indicator of low socioeconomic status.

Procedure

During the second month of school in the Fall semester, ninth grade students completed the High School Experience Survey. The survey is the first part of an intervention curriculum requested by the high school and is available in both Spanish and English, depending upon language preference of the participant. The survey includes several instruments designed to observe (among other things) students’ persistence intentions, physical symptoms, support networks, and exposure to violence. Results from the survey form the basis of subsequent classroom activities.

Instruments

Drawing from the High School Experience Survey (Solberg, Close, & Metz, 2002) the following measures were used.

Perceived availability of family support. This scale consists of seven items that were established from the Social Provisions Scale (SPS; Russell & Cutrona, 1984) to assess perceived availability of family support. The scale is a 5-point Likert scale that ranges from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), where the participants report the extent of their perceived family support. Sample items include ‘‘There is a family member that I could talk to about important decisions in my life’’ and ‘‘Members of my family recognize my abilities and skills.’’ Solberg, Carlstrom, Howard, and Jones (2007) reported an alpha reliability of .74; the coefficient alpha for the current sample was .71.

Peer connection. Peer connection was assessed by using four items that were based on a measure of social integration of college students originally developed by Pascarella and Terenzini (1980). These items were rewritten for use with high school students. The scale is a 5-point Likert scale that ranges from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree), where participants report the extent to which they agree with accounts about their experiences of high school peer relationships. A sample item for this scale is ‘‘There is a friend I can depend on for help.’’ Previous research (Solberg et al., 2007) reported a coefficient alpha of .76; the coefficient alpha for the current sample was .75.

Exposure to violence. Exposure to violence was assessed using the Children’s Report of Exposure to Violence (CREV; Cooley, Turner, & Beidel, 1994). The CREV includes

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two subscales: indirect exposure to violence (10 items) and direct exposure to violence (4 items). Indirect exposure to violence includes items such as ‘‘Has anyone ever told you about somebody you know being beaten up?’’ Whereas direct exposure to violence includes items such as ‘‘Have you ever been beaten up?’’ Students report the frequency with which they have experienced various acts of violence on a 5-point scale from 0 (no, never) to 4 (every day). Full-scale scores can be reported for an overall exposure to violence, or the subscale values can be used to differentiate indirect and direct exposure to violence. Solberg et al. (2007) reported an alpha reliability of 0.87 for indirect exposure to violence and an alpha of 0.82 for direct exposure to violence. In the current study, we used students’ total exposure to violence scores, obtaining a full-scale alpha reliability of 0.89.

Symptoms of distress. Symptoms of distress were assessed by asking participants to respond to the 22-item School Distress Inventory (SDI; Close & Solberg, 2008), which was derived from the College Distress Inventory (CDI; Solberg et al., 1998). This scale is a 6-point Likert scale that ranges from 0 (never) to 5 (always), where the participants indicated the extent to which they had felt distress and experienced physical symptoms within the week prior to taking the survey. Sample items included ‘‘sleeping less than usual at night,’’ ‘‘feeling cranky,’’ and ‘‘increased appetite.’’ There are five subscales in the SDI: agitation, eating problems, feelings of anxiety/depression, physical problems, and sleep difficulty. Previous research (Close & Solberg, 2008) reported a full-scale alpha reliability of .92. The coefficient alpha for the current study was also .92.

Persistence intentions. Persistence intentions were assessed by using the four items1 of the Pascarella and Terenzini (1980) social integration measure that address a student’s commitment to staying in school (Torres & Solberg, 2001). Sample items include ‘‘I expect to finish my high school education’’ and ‘‘I will complete this school year.’’ Students respond on a 5-point Likert-type scale ranging from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree). Although previous research (Torres & Solberg, 2001) reported a coefficient alpha of .74, we obtained an alpha reliability of only 0.48. This reliability falls well below the accepted minimum. Nonetheless, we decided to continue with our analyses, for even though the low alpha level in this study may increase the likelihood of a type II error, any significant findings will be detected despite low levels of reliability rather than because of it. At the same time, however, we must interpret any significant results concerning persistence intentions with caution, particularly until future replication of these results are performed or better methods for assessing persistence intentions with adolescents are developed.

Grade point average. Grade point average was calculated through grades obtained for each student from their school records.

RESULTS

The means, standard deviations, intercorrelations, and alpha reliability estimates for each variable are presented in Table 1. Persistence intentions were significantly

1 Out of concern for the small number of items comprising this scale, we examined whether a linear combination of the item scores would better capture the phenomenon of persistence intentions. Canonical correlation analysis revealed that the items functioned in a unified manner; thus we proceeded with our planned analyses and treated the items as one scale.

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correlated in the expected direction with each measure used in the study. Further, exposure to violence was negatively correlated with student GPA and positively correlated with symptoms of distress. Family support was positively correlated with peer support, and negatively correlated with symptoms of distress. With the exception of persistence intentions, all scales yielded adequate estimates of internal reliability.

Prior to reporting the main results, two sets of analyses were conducted. The first set of analyses was designed to describe the degree of violence exposure reported by

Table 1. Means, Standard Deviations, Reliabilities, and Correlations for Predictor and Criterion Variables

Variable M SD a 1 2 3 4 5 6

1. Family support 2.88 .75 .71 1 .16 �.03 �.21�� �.17� .12 2. Peer support 2.88 .88 .75 1 �.00 �.02 .37�� �.04 3. Exposure to violence 1.22 .75 .89 1 .40�� �.17� �.23�� 4. Symptoms of distress 1.40 .89 .92 1 �.25�� �.10 5. Persistence intentions 3.04 .64 .48 1 .22�

6. Grade point average 1.69 1.05 NA 1

Note. NA 5 Not applicable. �p4.05; ��p4.01.

Exposure to Violence – Total

0.00 0.20 0.40 0.60 0.80 1.00 1.20 1.40 1.60 1.80 2.00

Told Beaten Up

Seen Beaten Up

Told Chased/Threatened

Seen Chased/Threatened

Told Robbed/Mugged

Seen Robbed/Mugged

Told Shot/Stabbed

Seen Shot/Stabbed

Told Killed

Seen Killed

Subj Beaten Up

Subj Chased/Threatened

Subj Robbed/Mugged

Subj Shot/Stabbed

V io

le n

ce –

T o

ta l

Average Response

Girls

Boys

Figure 1. Students exposed to violence, by gender.

Table 2. Percentages of Students Exposed to Violence, by Gender

Victim of (%) Witnessed (%) Been told (%)

Violent event Boys Girls Boys Girls Boys Girls

Beaten up 69.40 64.40 77.30 72.70 72.40 82.60 Chased/threatened 57.90 47.70 64.50 57.60 68.40 76.10 Robbed/mugged 43.40 21.50 42.10 54.60 76.30 74.60 Shot/stabbed 32 24.70 45.30 57.10 76.30 83.50 Murdered – – 30.70 39.60 65.80 81.40

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the sample (Figure 1); the second was designed to evaluate whether gender differences were evident enough to warrant adding it as a separate variable. To provide context as to the level of exposure of violence experienced by the participants, the percentage of those indicating at least one incident of violence exposure is described; 94.3% of the participants reported at least one exposure to community violence. Item by type of exposure is described in Table 2 and the results indicate that the most common experience for both boys and girls in our sample was being told that someone they knew had been shot/stabbed (76.3% and 83.5% respectively). Both boys and girls reported being victims of beatings at a similar rate (69.4% and 64.4%), and 43.4% of boys and 21.7% of girls reported being the victim of a mugging. Almost a third (32%) of boys and a quarter (24.7%) of girls reported being victims of stabbings or shootings, and a large percentage of the students in our sample indicated that they had witnessed a murder(s) within their community (39.6% of girls, 30.7% of boys).

To evaluate potential gender differences, a multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted using gender as the independent variable and the six variables (family support, peer support, exposure to violence, symptoms of distress, persistence intentions, and GPA) as dependent variables. Preliminary checks for multivariate normality indicated homogeneity of variance using Box’s M, F(21, 60240) 5 1.01, po.05, and no multivariate outliers (Schwab, 2006; Tabachnick & Fidell, 1996). The MANOVA indicated significant gender differences, Wilks’s l5 .837, F(6, 125) 5 4.04, po.001, for symptoms of distress, F(1, 131) 5 6.32, po0.005, R2 5 .05, and peer support, F(1, 131) 5 6.36, po0.05, R2 5 .04. However, gender failed to add any additional variance to any of the subsequent hierarchical analyses and was therefore not reported.

The purpose of the study was to examine whether family and peer support would moderate the relationship between exposure to violence and three outcomes: grades, symptoms of distress, persistence intentions. Following the recommendations of Aiken and West (1991) and Keith (2006), hierarchical regression was used to assess for the moderator effects separately for each criterion (GPA, symptoms of distress, and persistence intentions). Raw scale scores for variables were centered to minimize multicollinearity among the interaction and main effects (Cronbach, 1987). The statistical program PASS 2005 (NCSS, 2007) was used to determine power for each planned regression analysis. Using an alpha of .05, power analyses revealed power scores of 1.0, 1.0, and .94 for the predictions of GPA, symptoms of distress, and persistence intentions, respectively, exceeding the minimum guideline of .80 recommended by Cohen (1988). Each regression model was tested in two steps. In Step 1, the predictor variables were entered to assess the direct effects of the predictors on the respective criterion variable. In Step 2, moderator variables were entered into the model. The moderator variables included in each regression model included the interaction of exposure to violence and family support and exposure to violence and peer support. In the model using GPA as the criterion, persistence intentions was added as a predictor and the interaction of exposure to violence and persistence intentions was added as a moderator. The reason for adding persistence intentions into the GPA model was due to its role in predicting academic performance in previous research (e.g., Somers, Owens, & Piliawsky, 2008). When significant interactions were found, the results were plotted to evaluate the nature of the moderator effects.

The first regression model assessed the relationship between family support, peer support, persistence intentions, exposure to violence, and GPA. The results are presented in Table 3 and indicate the overall regression was statistically signi- ficant, R2 5 .11, F(4, 128) 5 3.84, p 5 .006. In Step 1, students reporting higher

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exposure to violence recorded lower grades, B 5�.20, F(1, 132) 5 5.49, po.05; and students reporting higher persistence intentions recorded higher grades, B 5 .21, F(1, 132) 5 4.98, po.05. In Step 2, adding the interaction effects accounted for 2% of additional variance, R2 5 .13, F(7, 125) 5 2.75, p 5 .01; however, none of the interaction effects were significant indicating that family support, peer support, and persistence intentions did not moderate the relationship between exposure to violence and GPA.

The second regression model assessed the relationship between family support, peer support, exposure to violence, and symptoms of distress. Results (Table 3) indicated that the overall regression for Step 1 was statistically significant, R2 5 .20, F(3, 164) 5 13.48, p 5 .000; with students reporting higher exposure to violence also reporting higher psychological and physical distress, B 5 .40, F(1, 166) 5 32.51, po.000; and students reporting higher family support reporting fewer symptoms of psychological and physical distress, B 5�.18, F(1, 166) 5 6.78, po.000. In Step 2, adding the interaction effects accounted for 6% of additional variance, R2 5 .26, F(5, 162) 5 11.24, p 5 .000. The interaction effect of family support and exposure to violence (see Figure 2) was found to be significantly related to psychological and physical distress, B 5�.27, F(1, 166) 5 12.82, po.000.

To assess the nature of the interaction effect, three regression lines were plotted (see Figure 2). The first regression line represents the relationship between exposure to violence and distress reported at one standard deviation below the mean of family support (b5 .62). The second regression line represents the relationship between exposure to violence and distress at the mean level of family support (b5 .35). The third regression line represents the relationship between exposure to violence and distress at one standard deviation above the mean of family support (b5 .08). The slope pattern indicates support for the protective-stabilizing moderator hypothesis (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005). For students reporting low availability of family support, there was a .62 increase in symptoms of distress for every one unit of increase in students’ reported exposure to violence. Alternatively, for students reporting high

0.00

0.50

1.00

1.50

2.00

2.50

3.00

X(low)

Exposure To Violence

S ym

p to

m s

Z(high) =

Z(med) =

Z(low) =

X(med) X(high)

Figure 2. Family support as a moderator of relationship between exposure to violence and symptoms of distress.

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availability of family support, increases in students’ reported exposure to violence was not associated with increases in distress. Procedures for evaluating levels of moderating variables as described by Preacher, Curran, and Bauer (2009) were used to evaluate the point at which family support demonstrates a protective-stabilizing effect. Results indicated that when reported levels of family support was .5 standard deviation above the sample mean (M 5 2.88), the level of reported violence exposure was no longer associated with distress.

The third regression model assessed the relationship between family support, peer support, exposure to violence, and persistence intentions. Results (Table 3) indicated that the overall regression for Step 1 was statistically significant, R2 5 .23, F(3, 164) 5 16.22, p 5 .000, with students reporting higher exposure to violence also reporting lower persistence intentions, B 5�.16, F(1, 166) 5 5.55, po.05; and students reporting higher peer, B 5 .32, F(1, 166) 5 21.57, po.000, and family support, B 5 .26, F(1, 166) 5 14.51, po.000, reporting higher persistence intentions, respectively. In Step 2, adding the interaction effects accounted for 2% of additional variance, R2 5 .25, F(5, 162) 5 10.96, p 5 .000. The interaction of peer support and exposure to violence (see Figure 3) was found to be significantly related to persistence intentions, B 5 .16, F(1, 166) 5 4.49, po.05.

To assess the nature of the interaction effect, three regression lines were plotted (see Figure 3). The first regression line represents the relationship between exposure to violence and persistence intentions reported at one standard deviation below the mean of peer support (b5�.34). The second regression line represents the relationship between exposure to violence and persistence intentions at the mean level of peer support (b5�.18). The third regression line represents the relationship between exposure to violence and persistence intentions at one standard deviation above the mean of peer support (b5�.02). Similar to Figure 2, the slope pattern indicates support for the protective-stabilizing moderator hypothesis (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005). For students reporting low availability of peer support, there was a .34 decrease in persistence intentions for every one unit of increase in students’ reported exposure to violence.

0.00

0.50

1.00

1.50

2.00

2.50

3.00

3.50

4.00

X(low)

Exposure To Violence

P er

si st

en ce

In te

n ti

o n

s

Z(high) =

Z(med) =

Z(low) =

X(med) X(high)

Figure 3. Peer support as a moderator of relationship between exposure to violence and persistence intentions.

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Alternatively, for students reporting high availability of peer support, increases in students’ reported exposure to violence was not associated with decreases in persistence intentions. Procedures for evaluating levels of moderating variables as described by Preacher et al. (2009) were again used to evaluate the point at which peer support demonstrates a protective-stabilizing effect. Results indicated that when reported levels of

Table 3. Regression Analyses for Persistence Intentions, Grade Point Average, and Physical Symptoms

Step and predictor variable R2 DR2 B

Grade point average (GPA) Step 1 .107��

Family support .08 Peer support �.14 Persistence intentions .21�

Exposure to violence �.20� F(4, 128) 5 3.839, p 5 .006

Step 2 .133�� .026 Family support .05 Peer support �.11 Persistence intentions .21�

Exposure to Violence �.21� Family Support�Violence �.13 Peer Support�Violence .05 Pers Int�Violence �.07 F(7, 125) 5 2.751, p 5 .01

Symptoms of distress Step 1 .20�� .20��

Family support �.18�� Peer support .004 Exposure to violence .40��

F(3, 164) 5 13.478, po.001 Step 2 .26�� .06��

Family support �.23�� Peer support .04 Exposure to violence .35��

Family Support�Violence �.27�� Peer Support�Violence .06 F(5, 162) 5 11.235, p o.001

Persistence intentions Step 1 .23�� .23��

Family support .26��

Peer support .32��

Exposure to violence �.16� F(3, 164) 5 16.222, po.001

Step 2 .25�� .02��

Family support .25��

Peer support .33��

Exposure to violence �.18� Family Support�Violence .004 Peer Support�Violence .16� F(5, 162) 5 10.959, po.001

Note. For persistence intentions, M 5 3.04, SD 5 .64; for GPA, M 5 1.69, SD 5 1.05; for symptoms, M 5 1.4, SD 5 .89. �po.05; ��po.01.

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peer support was .35 standard deviation above the sample mean (M 5 2.88), level of reported violence exposure was no longer associated with persistence intentions.

DISCUSSION

This study examined the relationship between urban youth’s exposure to violence and the moderating effects of family and peer support on academic performance, psychological distress, and persistence intentions. The results indicated that for symptoms of distress, family support provided a protective-stabilizing moderating effect (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005) such that students reporting high availability of family support were not found to report higher symptoms of distress as a function of reporting higher exposure to violence. In addition, the results indicated that for persistence intentions, peer support provided a protective-stabilizing effect such that students reporting high availability of peer support were not found to report lower persistence intentions as a function of reporting higher exposure to violence.

The results also suggest that our sample of high school students who were from an urban midwestern city experienced a significant amount of community violence and that the rates exceeded those reported in previous studies of exposure to violence in urban populations (Gorman-Smith & Tolan, 1998; Ozer & Weinstein, 2004; White et al., 1998). Although it may be well-known that urban youth are exposed to violence at disturbingly high rates, the results from this study suggest that our sample of students have experienced the more extreme forms of violence at an alarming rate, with almost a third of boys and a quarter of girls having been victims of stabbings or shootings and over 30% of both boys and girls having witnessed at least one murder. Further, the students in our sample that reported high levels of exposure to violence similarly reported high levels of distress, a finding consistent with the results of other related investigations (Durant, Cadenhead, Pendergrast, Slavens, & Under, 1994; Martinez & Richters, 1993).

Although previous research has indicated a reliable relationship between the exposure to violence and symptoms of distress, there has been less attention paid to the protective factors that may weaken this relationship. The results of the current study suggest that students exposed to community violence that also have high levels of family support report significantly fewer symptoms of distress than those with low levels of support by family members. Previously, Ozer and Weinstein (2004) found that for a sample of early adolescents, perceived family support moderated the relationship between exposure to violence and PTSD symptoms. Our findings extend the work of Ozer and Weinstein by indicating that, in an older adolescent sample, family support was similarly able to support the demonstration of resilience in the context of high violence exposure. Further, we find that the buffering effect found in the Ozer and Weinsten study may extend to a broader range of distress symptoms, such as sadness, agitation, sleep issues, and eating problems. In fact, when family support is high there is virtually no relationship between exposure to violence and distress (see Figure 2), which is consistent with the protective-stabilizing effect described by Fergus and Zimmerman (2005). This protective-stabilizing effect becomes nearly complete at a point one half of a standard deviation above the average level of family support reported by youth. In practical terms, this means that if we are able to move youth from mostly agreeing that there is a family member available

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to provide support to them when they are facing problems or concerns, to a point where they are consistently agreeing that this is the case, we may, in essence, be nullifying the detrimental relationship that exposure to violence has with experiences of distress.

This study also examined the role of social support in the maintenance of academic persistence intentions. Although both family and peer support were positive predictors of students’ persistence intentions, only support from peers moderated its negative relationship with exposure to violence. In our sample of urban youth exposed to violence, those youth who perceived they had high levels of support by peers were able to maintain their intentions to successfully complete high school, even when exposed to high levels of community violence. This is an encouraging finding, as previous research has demonstrated that exposure to violence negatively impacts students’ academic achievement (e.g., Schwartz & Gorman, 2003; Thompson & Massat, 2005). In fact, when peer support is high, we find consistently high persistence intentions regardless of the level of exposure to violence reported (see Figure 3). The protective-stabilizing (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005) effect of peer support is nearly complete at a point that is one half of a standard deviation above the average amount of peer support reported. Thus, if school-based professionals and interventionists are able to raise students’ perceptions of peer support so that they change from mostly agreeing that there is a peer/ friend available to provide support to them when they are facing problems, to a point where they consistently agree that this is the case, then the negative relationship between exposure to violence and academic persistence intentions may be erased. Future research that addresses the psychometric issues found with our measure of academic persistence intentions could further our understanding of the relationships amongst these variables and provide more confidence in these results.

Limitations and Directions for Future Research

As with any study, there are several limitations to this study that should be noted. First, with the exception of GPA data, we relied primarily on student self-reported data. While it is true that self-report measures can lend themselves to inflated responses, it is also accepted in the exposure to violence (White et al., 1998) and support literature (Cohen & Wills, 1985) that self-report methods are often the preferred and perhaps most accurate way to assess the amount of violence experienced by youth and youth perceptions of social support. Nonetheless, future studies could endeavor to collect more-objective measures of distress and persistence intentions and could explore other markers of community violence, such as crime rates, etc., and their relationship to youth outcomes.

Although the results reported here are encouraging it is important to bear in mind that the data used were cross-sectional in nature. This is understandable given the nature of the population sampled, a population experiencing high rates of mobility due to the housing instability that comes with high rates of poverty. The transient nature of this population makes it hard to track individuals over time; nonetheless, longitudinal examinations of protective nature of social support for youth exposed to violence will be critical for our confidence in these results and to move beyond the correlational nature of our data.

An additional limitation to this study is the approximate nature of our sample demographic information. As explained above, the data used in this study were part of a larger secondary data set that did not include specific racial/ethnic information and

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socioeconomic status information, but was drawn from the entire ninth grade of a predominately low-income, diverse high school. Further, the measure of persistence intentions used in this study needs to be examined for ways to improve its psychometric properties. Although there may be a perception that any alpha level below .70 will yield unreliable results, our contention with the persistence intentions scale is that the alpha level is an indication that our results would be even more robust were the alpha level higher than .48. The low alpha we obtained indicates that we had reduced power to detect significant results. Given that we nonetheless obtained such results suggests that significance was detected not because of low levels of reliability, but despite it. It appears that the low alpha we obtained is more likely the result of an emergent factor structure, one in which it is the sum of responses to different types of items (vs. the overlap of item content) that leads to the capturing of the phenomenon of interest. With such factor structures, it would be possible to have low-coefficient alpha levels and significant results. Researchers interested in this scale may benefit from exploring this possibility in the future.

Future research could also examine whether there are specific aspects of family support and peer support that are most influential in moderating the effects of exposure to violence on youth outcomes. Although we can report that such relationships exist, we focused on the sum of students’ experiences of family and/or peer support versus the specific qualities of that support (e.g., being available to listen to students’ issues vs. providing direct guidance/advice). Qualitative interviews could provide a particularly useful method for beginning such an investigation.

CONCLUSION

In sum, the results reported here indicate an alarmingly high rate of exposure to violence among the urban youth in this study. Over 94% of our participants had been exposed to at least one form of community violence and 30% of them had witnessed a murder. In this context of high exposure to violence, we found predictable relationships between rates of exposure to violence and the symptoms of distress, the academic persistence intentions, and the high school grades reported by our participants. At the same time, we found two powerful protective factors at work in youths’ lives: the support offered by family members and by friends/peers. When taken together, our results suggest that in the context of community violence, family support may function to decrease youths’ experiences of distress, and thus, essentially, help youth to arrive at school ‘‘ready to learn.’’ Once at school, the availability of support by peers may help them to maintain their intention to persist academically, perhaps bolstering their ability to be successful in their academic pursuits.

Thus, the results obtained in this study provide additional evidence that the support provided to youth by their family members and their friends/peers has the potential to function as a protective factor (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998) or a developmental asset (Benson et al., 2006) in a manner consistent with the protective- stabilizing model described by Fergus and Zimmerman (2005). Although reducing the frequency of community violence is certainly a critical societal-level goal and would likely lead to improved outcomes for youth at-risk for exposure to such violence, it is also a complex and multiinfluenced epidemic that takes years of concerted effort to effect. Although such efforts are being undertaken, we need not idly wait on the

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sidelines, but can draw upon a rich and growing body of literature that explores the protective processes at play in the lives of at-risk youth to develop programs and interventions to promote positive youth development.

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