Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal


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Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal (2018) 35:577585

School, Social-Communicative, and Academic Challenges Among Delinquents and Juvenile Sexual Offenders

Kevin Tan1 Adam Brown2 George Stuart Leibowitz3

Published online: 30 May 2018 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Abstract This study explores the association between student factors and delinquency by comparing two groups of adjudicated youth in six Midwestern residential facilities: 331 young men committed for a sexual offense, and 171 committed for a nonsexual offense. Statistically significant findings include juvenile sexual offenders exhibiting a greater number of delinquent behaviors and greater academic and social difficulties compared with their counterparts adjudicated for a nonsexual offense. Addition- ally, path analysis revealed that school experience was negatively associated with delinquency for both groups. For juvenile sexual offenders, academic difficulties were associated with delinquency through their school experience. Among general delinquents, delinquency was directly associated with social difficulties and school experience. Implications for interven- tions and future research are discussed.

Keywords Adolescent sexual offending Delinquency School experience Academic difficulties Social difficulties

A range of school-related stressors, such as poor school experience and social communicative and academic dif- ficulties are strongly associated with crime among youth (Agnew, 2009). Youth who have committed sexual offenses (juvenile sexual offenders, JSOs) tend to have high levels of co-occurring general delinquency (Brown & Burton, 2010; van Wijk et al., 2006) and share many characteristics with youth offenders who have committed nonsexual offenses (general delinquents, GDs; Seto & Lalumire, 2010). Fail- ures in school bonding and academic achievement during early adolescence are well established correlates of prob- lem behaviors and delinquency in late adolescence (Hoff- mann, Erickson, & Spence, 2013; Welsh & Harding, 2015). Strong evidence also associates lack of school-related social competencies such as communication abilities with delin- quency (Gottfredson, 2017). This study therefore compares

school-related stressors between JSOs and GDs, an area past research has ignored.

A recent study comparing JSOs to GD shows that gen- eral delinquency and property damage significantly pre- dicted membership in the JSO group (Leibowitz, Akakpo, & Burton, 2016). However, to the best of our knowledge, only one study has compared JSOs to GDs using a school- based indicator. This study relies on population-based data from Sweden (Kjellgren, Priebe, Svedin, & Lngstrm, 2010). It found that GDs were more likely than JSOs to be in a vocational school as opposed to an academic-based program (Kjellgren et al., 2010). However, the authors did not hypothesize as to the significance of this finding. This finding might suggest that the relationship between school- based factors and delinquency looks different for JSOs than GDs. If so, school-based delinquency interventions for JSOs might benefit from different approaches than those designed for GDs. Hence, the purpose of this study is to compare the role of school experience and social communicative and academic difficulties on delinquency among JSOs and GDs. Findings have implications for practice with children and adolescents in understanding and preventing delinquency, especially among JSOs.

The literature refers to school experience by many terms, including school bonding, school engagement, and school connectedness (Blum, 2005; Jonson-Reid, 2009).

* Kevin Tan [email protected]

1 School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, Urbana, USA

2 Silberman School of Social Work, Hunter College, The City University of New York, New York, USA

3 School of Social Welfare, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, USA

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All have a strong inverse link with negative behaviors by adolescents (Blum, 2005; Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; Jonson-Reid, 2009; Maddox & Prinz, 2003; McNeely, Nonnemaker, & Blum, 2002). For example, having the abil- ity to make and maintain friendships in school and/or the experience of academic success may contribute to a positive school experience (Blum, 2005; Jonson-Reid, 2009). Such positive encounters are important, as failure to cultivate encouraging experiences might result in young people turn- ing to crime as a means of alleviating the negative emotions associated with school (Agnew, 2009). As such, in order to foster positive feelings of school among JSOs and GDs, it is important to identify potential sources of school stressors and to understand how they may relate to delinquency.

A number of factors can influence a students experience at school. For instance, strong evidence shows that race/ ethnicity affects a students overall experience in school, as African American youth proportionally encounter more academic struggles in school than White youth (Rocque & Paternoster, 2011). African American youth tend to be over- represented in juvenile detention settings (Pettus-Davis & Epperson, 2015). However, White youth tend to represent the greatest number of JSOs (Burton & Ginsberg, 2012; Kernsmith, Craun, & Foster, 2009); African-American GDs are more likely than white GDs to have committed nonsexual violence (Felson & Kreager, 2014).

A deeper understanding of how race/ethnicity functions in the connection between delinquency and the school expe- rience might highlight some important differences between JSOs and GDs. An understanding of the impact of educa- tional disability and the attending risk of being victimized in school than their peers is also a significant contribution to the literature (Rose, Monda-Amaya, & Espelage, 2010). Often, a learning disability diagnosis is associated with aca- demic abilities and social communicative skills (Espelage, Rose, & Polanin, 2015). Findings with respect to both race and learning disabilities have important implications for social workers, particularly school practitioners. First, the over-representation of African-American youth in juvenile detention settings requires a social work ethical response (Pettus-Davis & Epperson, 2015). Second, findings with respect to all of these factors can support early interventions to prevent delinquency among students who display signifi- cant needs in their school social-communicative abilities.

In light of the association between a young persons aca- demic ability and school success (Blum, 2005; Jonson-Reid, 2009), social communicative skills, which include the abil- ity to resolve conflicts and maintain relationships in school (Merrell & Gimpel, 2014) are important. Despite being con- ceptually distinct constructs, academic and communicative deficits are highly correlated; students with poor communi- cative skills are very likely to have lower academic abilities and vice versa (Riggio, Messamer, & Throckmorton, 1991).

Furthermore, both poor communicative skills and lower aca- demic abilities are highly associated with delinquent behav- iors (Clegg, Stackhouse, Finch, Murphy, & Nicholls, 2009; Katsiyannis, Ryan, Zhang, & Spann, 2008). The inability to achieve positively valued goals, such as academic success, or the loss of positively-valued stimuli, such as having friends at school, are likely to be great sources of strain in a young persons life that could lead to delinquency (Agnew, 2009).

The extent to which academic abilities and social com- munication are associated with delinquency may differ between JSOs and GDs. For instance, while researchers have not explored the link between school experience and delinquency among JSOs, JSOs tend to have lower measures of general intelligence and memory functioning than GDs (Cantor, Blanchard, Robichaud, & Christensen, 2005; Seto & Lalumire, 2010), which would likely affect academic ability. Very little attention has been paid to how levels of social competence might distinguish these groups. If young people with lower cognitive and communicative function- ing tend to struggle in their academics and social interac- tions, it makes sense that they might experience school less positively than those without these issues might. The addi- tional strains they experience as a consequence of this type of school experience may, in turn, expose them higher risk of engaging in criminological activities (Agnew, 2009; Ben- nett, Farrington, & Huesmann, 2005; Hawkins, Catalano, Kosterman, Abbott, & Hill, 1999).

Given the potential for quality of school experience, aca- demic abilities, and social communication and background factors to differ between JSOs and GDs, this study seeks to compare how these student factors may differ. Based on the literature, we hypothesize that academic and communicative difficulties correlate with each other for both groups, but that JSOs will report higher levels of academic and com- municative difficulties and lower levels of positive school experience than GDs. We also hypothesize that, after taking race and special education status into account, the quality of school experience is inversely associated with delinquency in both groups. Lastly, we believe that academic and com- municative difficulties are inversely associated with positive school experience and positively linked with delinquency for the two groups.


School Experiences

Participants and Procedures

Participants were incarcerated male juveniles, ages 1220 (n = 502), recruited from six residential facilities in a

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Midwestern state. Juvenile sexual offenders are likely to be male (Barbaree & Marshall, 2008). Among our sample, 331 (66%) were adjudicated for sexual offenses and 171 (34%) for non-sexual crimes. Among these participants, 321 JSOs and 155 GDs responses were suitable to be used for this studys analyses, as the other participants had a high degree of missing values on some measures used in this study, and it was not possible to impute. There was no difference between juveniles left out due to missing responses and those used in this study.

After approval from the State Department of Youth Services Institutional Review Board (IRB), self-reported measures were administered using pencil and paper surveys in a small group format (68 participants) in classrooms. Youths were separated to ensure that they could not view one anothers responses. A trained graduate student research assistant read the survey aloud individually to those youths who struggled with reading. Participants received no incen- tive to complete the survey. Those youths who refused to participate (approximately 30%) were proportionately dis- tributed across the six facilities. It was not possible to com- pare data on those who declined vs. those who consented to participate.


Academic Difficulties

Academic difficulties were based on the sum of five ques- tions that assessed problems in reading, writing and math, such as how difficult is/was reading for you? and how dif- ficult is/was math for you? How difficult was/is penman- ship (writing letters or numbers) for you? How difficult was/is spelling for you? How difficult was/is it for you to write your thoughts on paper? These are standard ques- tions used to assess academic difficulties (Johnston, 1985). Cronbachs alpha for this measure was 0.75. Participants chose from five responses ranging from 1 = no difficulties at all to 5 = a great degree of difficulty. A higher overall score would suggest more struggles in academic difficulties.

Social Communicative Difficulties

The measure for communicative difficulties was constructed from the sum of six questions that examined struggles in understanding and communicating thoughts and feelings. The following questions were asked: How much difficulty did/do you have understanding what others were saying to you? How difficult was/is it for you to communicate with others? How difficult was/is it for you to communicate your feelings to others? How difficult was/is it for you to communicate your ideas/thoughts to others? How dif- ficult was/is it for you to understand spoken directions? and

How difficult was/is it for you to understand written direc- tions? These are frequently used questions to assess social- communicative difficulties (Kaczmarek, 2002). Cronbachs alpha = 0.78. Similar to academic difficulties, participants chose from five responses ranging from 1 = no difficulties at all to 5 = a great degree of difficulty.

School Experience

The quality of school experience was measured using a sin- gle item asking respondents to rate the degree to which they liked school during their elementary and secondary school years up until the time of their incarceration. Participants chose from a scale of 1 to 5, with a higher score indicating a more positive school experience.


Delinquent behaviors were assessed using the Self-Reported Delinquency (SRD) scale (Elliott, Huizinga, & Menard, 1989), which measured delinquent behaviors based on 32 questions, such as before I was arrested, I sold marijuana/ pot/weed/hash, and I hit or threatened to hit one of my par- ents. For each question, respondents were asked to rate on a scale of 1, indicating that they did not exhibit that behav- ior, to 7, which indicated that they displayed the behavior two to three times a day. Responses from the 32 questions were added together to provide a measure of delinquency. A higher overall score would suggest a higher involvement or greater intensity in delinquent behaviors. Cronbachs alpha was 0.97.

Race/Ethnicity and Special Education Status

Race/ethnicity and special education status were based on youths self-reports. For race/ethnicity, participants chose from one of these categories: Black or African American, White or Caucasian, Hispanic or Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American / American Indian, Arab Ameri- can, Others. Special education status was based on the ques- tion Did/do you attend Special Education classes?


SPSS version 24.0 was used to run descriptive statistics on the demographic variables and measures used in the study. To compare the differences between the JSOs and GDs, t tests for continuous variables and Chi square tests for cat- egorical variables were used. Pearson bivariate correlation analyses were also conducted to examine the strength and direction of the variables used in this study. Subsequently, Mplus version 7.4 was used to run path analysis models sep- arately for JSOs and GDs with the dummy coded variables

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for race (African American) and special education added as covariates in the models.

For both JSOs and GDs, the same model that depicted the hypotheses of this study was applied and pathways not meeting statistical significance were removed from the model. The final model was assessed using the following goodness-of-fit indices: model Chi square, the comparative fit index (CFI), the TuckerLewis index (TLI) and the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA). Chi square tests in the model assess the exact-fit hypothesis that there are no discrepancies between the co-variances of this studys population and those predicted by the models, with an insig- nificant Chi square (p 0.05) suggesting that we would not reject the exact-fit hypothesis. CFI and TLI are incremen- tal fit indices that compare the improvement in fit over the baseline model, with values 0.95 being considered to be desirable; while the RMSEA is a parsimony-corrected index with a value of 0.05 suggesting a good model fit (Kline, 2011). The robust maximum likelihood robust (MLR) esti- mator under the analysis command in MPLUS was used to estimate the coefficients for the models. Missing data was handled using the default ML function in Mplus.


Characteristics of the Sample

Table 1 provides a descriptive summary of the sample. The mean age for JSOs was 16.70 (SD = 1.65) and for GDs, 16.49 (SD = 1.28). No statistically significant differences were noted between groups in terms of age. Differences were noted for race and special education status. JSOs tended to be mostly White and GDs were mostly African American (47.0 vs. 52.9%; p 0.001). JSOs had higher placement rates in special education (49.4 vs. 26.5%; p 0.001). JSOs were significantly more likely than GDs to have reported academic

difficulties (M = 11.01, SD = 4.78 vs. M = 9.84, SD = 4.54; p 0.05) and communicative difficulties (M = 12.83, SD = 5.31 vs. M = 10.19, SD = 4.34; p 0.001). No statisti- cal difference was observed between groups in the quality of school experience reported (JSOs: M = 3.09, SD = 1.39 vs. GDs: M = 2.88, SD = 1.33). Finally, JSOs reported sig- nificantly higher levels of delinquent behaviors (M = 64.61, SD = 34.07) than GDs (54.31, SD = 24.46; p 0.001).

Bivariate Relationships

The Pearson correlation matrix (Table 2) showed that com- municative difficulties were positively correlated with delinquency for both JSOs (r = 0.113, p 0.05) and GDs (r = 0.228, p 0.01); while academic difficulties were posi- tively correlated with delinquency for JSOs only (r = 0.117, p 0.05). As expected, school experience was inversely correlated with delinquency for both JSOs (r = 0.149, p 0.01) and GDs (r = 0.222, p 0.01), while commu- nicative difficulties and academic difficulties were posi- tively correlated for both JSOs (r = 0.533, p 0.001) and GDs (r = 0.464, p 0.001). School experience was not significantly correlated with academic and communicative difficulties for either group. Special education status was significantly correlated with all other variables for JSOs. However, for GDs, special education was only significantly correlated with race, academic difficulties, and communica- tive difficulties.

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