When Rural Traditions Really Count

by Ullik Rouk
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XIII, Number 1, April 2001, Changes and Challenges for Rural Schools

During the past decade, there has been new research examining the vulnerability of rural youth to the spread of these problems. And the statistics present the stark reality confronting Americaís rural educators: drug and alcohol abuse, gang activity, adolescent pregnancy, and homelessness are just as prevalent among their students as among urban students, and in some cases even more so. The good news coming out of these studies is that rural youth still think their schools and communities are safer and better places to be than do their urban peers. This suggests that there are opportunities for rural schools and communities to intervene with positive youth development alternatives before hard-core activity takes tight hold.

Evidence of Rural Problems

Substance Use and Gangs Alcohol remains the most widely abused substance among rural teens. However, other substances are wending their way through Americaís back roads and into the hands of its youth. Data analyzed by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University show that, when compared with their urban peers, eighth graders in rural America are 104 percent more likely to succumb to the lure of amphetamines. This includes methamphetamine, a highly addictive substance that can spark erratic, violent, paranoid, and hyperactive behavior and cause brain damage. And the bad news doesn't stop there. According to CASA, rural eighth graders are 83 percent likelier than those in urban centers to use crack cocaine; 50 percent likelier to use cocaine; 34 percent likelier to smoke marijuana; 29 percent likelier to drink alcohol; and 70 percent likelier to get drunk (National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University [CASA], 2000).

Drugs, youth gangs, adolescent pregnancy, homelessness. Urban blights? Yes, but students in America’s rural schools are no more immune from these problems than their peers in big cities.

Among rural tenth and twelfth graders, use rates exceed those in large urban areas for every drug except Ecstasy and marijuana. Rates are higher for the use of cocaine, crack, amphetamines, inhalants, alcohol, cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

The drugs are easy to obtain. One theory espoused by law enforcement officials is that the large gangs that often control drug distribution in the cities are seeking new markets in smaller communities, away from escalating competition among sellers and tougher law enforcement in urban areas. In some cases, rural areas with their many back roads, places to land small airplanes, and sparse populations have become safer places for drug traffickers to hide.

As elsewhere, the introduction of drugs into rural communities brings increases in crime and youth gangs. Youth gangs, once primarily an urban scourge, have tripled their number in rural areas, according to some estimates (Caldrella, Sharpnack, Loosli, & Merrell, 1996). These gangs are much like their urban counterparts, except that while city gangs usually identify with a "turf" or "hood" rural gang members come from a much larger area and may travel some miles to be with fellow members.

According to a study of rural school counselors, more than one-third of the counselors surveyed indicated a growing gang presence in their communities (Caldrella et al., 1996). More than half said that crime was increasing in their community. Counselors also cited rising rates of school truancy, suspensions, and expulsions. A striking 88 percent agreed drugs were easily available near their school.

Teen Pregnancy

The first study to look specifically at rural adolescent pregnancy was conducted in 1997 by the Rural Health Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Skatrud, Bennett, & Loda, 1998). It revealed a birthrate of 38 per 1,000 rural teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17 and an urban birthrate of 29 per 1000 among urban teens of the same age.

The issue of early childbearing provokes concern because few teenage girls have the income or parenting skills to rear a child without assistance from relatives, schools, or welfare agencies. With few daycare centers available, they are often forced to drop out of school in order to care for their children.


Picture of boy with a bagThe lack of affordable housing, precipitating homelessness among rural residents, is still another urban condition that is shattering the myth of bucolic America. Figures on homelessness are difficult to obtain, especially in rural areas. Nonetheless, researchers estimate that families, single mothers, and children make up the largest group of the rural homeless (Vissing, 1996).

One of the many difficulties of families in such straits is that unless they can stay with relatives or friends, these rural homeless are more likely to live in a car or camper than in a shelter, giving them no official address. In some states, the lack of a permanent address still poses an enormous barrier to enrolling children in school.

Additionally, homeless students are often missing birth certificates and immunization records needed for enrollment.


>> Educators note

It is often not student substance use that is the problem, but parental use. A middle school counselor in a small Central Texas school district reports, "We deal with students who are unhappy, miserable, or angry . . . eventually you find out there is parental drug involvement or abuse and neglect at home." She adds that although it isn't the norm, a few families have fled from the city to her rural district to get away from law enforcement or Child Protective Services.

Poverty and Other Reasons for Increasing Social Problems

Certainly, poverty fuels some of these rural difficulties. America's rural residents are still the poorest in the nation. In 1997, the poverty rate in nonmetropolitan areas was 15.9 percent, as opposed to 12.6 percent in metropolitan areas, a rate that has held relatively constant since 1991 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998). Moreover, many rural people live just above the poverty line. The working poor make up 26.3 percent of rural residents as opposed to 18.2 percent of city residents.

East Mesa Team Takes a Cultural Approach to Substance Use Prevention

On the East Mesa, about 10 miles from Los Lunas, New Mexico, is an area that seems more remote than it really is. Low-income families, many of them immigrants from Mexico, live in mobile homes in two colonias on the mesa. There are no paved roads, police protection, medical services, or garbage pickup.

What isn't lacking on the East Mesa, however, is a sense of community and a community that cares about its children and teenagers.

Maria Elena Ayala, a local community action leader, says that alcohol and drug use among youth is the biggest problem on the East Mesa. She notes their community is taking a cultural approach to addressing these problems through its Collaborative Action Team (CAT) that was begun with the help of SEDL.

Six to eight times a year, the CAT plans community celebrations around holidays or special events that emphasizean anti-alcohol and anti-drug message. For example, during the past six months the team organized Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead), Thanksgiving, Virgin de Guadalupe, and Valentine's celebrations. At each of these events, parents planned the activities and entertainment and brought the food. A recent celebration was attended by a thousand children and teens.

"At the celebrations, we always affirm our culture and emphasize the importance of being drug and alcohol free," says Ayala. She says that a constant message to the kids is for them not to fall into the trap of advertisers. "We talk openly about the tobacco and alcohol industries and about valuing our family and neighborhoods."

Service providers come to the parties, too, so that residents can get to know them and learn about the services available. According to Ayala, a public health nurse usually attends as well as someone from the Safe & Drug Free Schools program and from the area domestic violence agency.

Día de Los Muertos this year was a special celebration dedicated to the teenagers in Valencia County who had lost their lives to violence, alcohol, and drugs. "We honored those teens and celebrated; we remembered and learned," says Ayala.

Unsurprisingly, economic marginality slides easily into worry and confusion. Such family stress can have a devastating impact on young people's motivation and school achievement, precursors to dropping out of school, drug use, crime, and early childbearing. What's more, the effort rural families must make to earn a living leaves little time for parents to take part in community, school, and social activities.

Observers of rural America also attribute many of the growing social problems to the cultural transition that is altering the rural landscape. Communications technologies including satellite television and the Internet have contributed greatly to relieving some of the isolation that rural youth face. On the flip side, these technologies have initiated rural youth to urban culture, including gang culture and dress.

Researcher Daryl Hobbs of the University of Missouri observes that in the days when small towns were the social and economic centers for surrounding farms, strong local traditions weighed heavily on social norms and behaviors. Today, however, many rural residents travel to metropolitan areas for daily necessities such as employment, shopping, and health care. All this draws time, loyalty, and identity away from small towns. With the loss of their economic and service functions, small towns have lost substantial influence on how their residents interact and behave. The consequences of such changes in rural life are a weakening of community ties, a sense of powerlessness among residents, including youth, and a diminished capacity of rural communities to come together on their own behalf (Hobbs, 1995).

Difficulties in Providing Services

A number of unique circumstances coalesce to complicate the provision of high-quality treatment and prevention services to rural youth. Rural areas typically do not have the networks of social agencies and private and nonprofit organizations that stand ready to intervene with troubled teens. In addition, their small, widely scattered populations often lack public transportation to get them to treatment centers and other places where they can pursue more healthy activities. Rural people also tend to be steeped in a tradition of self-reliance. Asking for outside assistance or receiving treatment may be seen as a sign of weakness (CASA, 2000). Likewise rural residents may doubt that interventions will be effective or that their personal affairs will be kept confidential.

Attracting education and health professionals who specialize in prevention and treatment programs for young people remains a key issue in providing accessible social services in rural areas. A recent survey shows that only 6.6 percent of substance-abuse treatment providers who serve rural youth specialized in the areas of drug or alcohol abuse, as opposed to 17.8 percent of providers based in urban areas. Most professional schools for mental health and substance abuse counselors focus on an urban model of service delivery, and workers are trained in a specialty field. This training is often inadequate to prepare professionals for the generalist role that they must play in smaller communities (CASA, 2000).

Search for Solutions

Schools remain the one institution in rural communities around which most residents are likely to rally on behalf of their youth. It falls to schools then to not only alert the community when problems with youth exist but also to pull the community together and create a plan of collective action. The fact that rural students still report that their schools and communities are safer and less-threatening places than those of their urban peers offers some encouragement that interventions put in place soon can curb some of these widening problems (Evans, Fitzgerald, Weigel, & Chvilicek, 1999).

Sadly, most programs cited nationally as models of drug, alcohol, and pregnancy prevention, or that present alternatives to gang activity, have been developed for urban centers and are inappropriate for rural communities. Also, advocates of rural education are quick to point out that no one place is typically rural. Socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural variations among rural communities differ, so local problem-solving efforts will differ as well. For schools, this means that any services to thwart drug abuse, violence, adolescent pregnancy, and other problems must begin with a community's own uniqueness and strengths. Fortunately, many rural communities have preserved the traditions that really count: large networks of family, friends, and neighbors, traditions of volunteering and mutual aid, and cultural attitudes and values.

Often, the first hurdle is addressing widespread denial of the problem. Here, educators are essential in promoting reality-based public education and getting the backing of local business and political leaders, who may have reasons of their own to prefer that the problems remain invisible.

But schools should not be expected to shoulder these issues alone. Collaboration is essential to combating increased substance abuse, crime and violence, early pregnancy, homelessness, and other issues complicating the lives of rural youth because the problems do not break down into the exclusive domain of any institution or agency. Rather, their implications fall into educational, economic, health, justice, family, legal, and social realms. For that reason, getting other agencies on board to share information and integrate their services is a key part of the solution.

Schools can take the lead in pulling together a community-wide assessment that gives a clearer picture of the nature and extent of local problems and the resources available to address them. Such resources include not only financial resources but also mentors for youth, health centers and other social service agencies, political clout, parents, and peer groups. The broader the base of the community task force conducting the assessment, the more comprehensive the outcome is likely to be.

Another role for schools is to provide professional development for teachers and administrators in such topics as peer aggression and self-esteem, gangs and youth violence, preparing for the unexpected, balancing students' rights and responsibilities, and making campuses safe. Similarly, there may be a need for additional training for school counselors. Close to half of the respondents in the survey of rural school counselors said they were not well enough trained to handle the gang-related issues with which they were forced to deal (Caldrella et al., 1996). Training for students and parents in spotting the symptoms and counteracting destructive behavior before it occurs is an equally important piece of the puzzle.

Many of the supports that rural adolescents need to curb unhealthy behaviors are the same as those for urban teens. Some of these are

  • education and strong basic skills training,

  • a range of non-academic opportunities for success,

  • links to caring adults who provide positive role models, values, and support,

  • family life education and life planning, comprehensive adolescent health services, and

  • a basic standard of living for all teen and their families, including access to jobs, nutrition, housing, income, and services to meet special needs.

Programs that target the entire family may bolster the teen's optimism and self-esteem, which in turn could reduce high-risk behaviors. So might programs developed around peer leadership.

Work conducted by the Search Institute (Blythe, 1993) shows that youth who participate in some form of structured community activity are less likely to behave in ways that put them at risk of poor mental and physical health. The problem for many young people living in rural areas, however, is finding community activities that are accessible and meaningful to them.

Many rural schools across the country have initiated efforts to link youth with efforts to revitalize their communities. In these communities, students help with studies, analyses, projects, and other real-world work in conjunction with schools, local businesses, and community agencies. High school students are an obvious resource to determine the extent of local substance abuse and violence, and they can help develop and implement plans and projects to ameliorate these problems, if they are found to exist. Students can undertake community work as a part of both their formal education and their education as community citizens. They can learn economics by studying how the local economy connects with the world outside their town. Research shows that these approaches are educationally effective and that they contribute to community well-being (Boethel, 2000). An added benefit is that such work can help students to become stakeholders in the community. Students' self-esteem can be expected to increase in direct proportion to their accomplishments (Hobbs, 1995).

>> After-school programs

After-school programs are one way schools and rural communities can work together to provide a safe place for children of working parents to stay after school as well as offer enrichment activities and tutoring. After-school programs can integrate activities for which there may not be time during the regular school day such as character education or fine arts programs. They also offer an ideal time to incorporate peer-to-peer tutoring and to build on classroom learning.

Mother's Day Project
Personal Skills Camp
Summer Art Camp
Some districts, such as Plainview-Rover in Arkansas, incorporate summer
camps into their after-school program

Also, increasing the consciousness of policymakers about the growing plight of rural youth is vital if community members are to draw attention to the issues. Increased coordination efforts need to include the local community and state and federal governments.

Behind each statistic given in this story, there is a rural child or youth crying out for help. But with the help of supportive communities and forward-thinking school administrators and policymakers, there is hope that rural schools can draw on their many strengths to create the best of all worlds for their students.


  • Blythe, D. (1993). Healthy communities, healthy youth. Minneapolis, MN: Lutheran Brotherhood.
  • Boethel, M. (2000). Thriving together: Connecting rural school improvement and community development. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory.
  • Caldrella, P., Sharpnack, J., Loosli, T., & Merrell, K. W. (1996). The spread of youth gangs into rural Areas: A survey of school counselors. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 15, 18–29.
  • CASA (see National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University).
  • Edwards, R. W. (1995). Alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use by youth in rural communities. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/envrnmnt/drugfree/v1edward.htm
  • Evans, W., Fitzgerald, C., Weigel, D., & Chvilicek, S. (1999, March). Are rural gang members similar to their urban peers? Implications for rural communities. Youth and Society, 30, 267–282.
  • Hobbs, D. (1995). The context of rising rates of rural violence and substance abuse: The problems and potential of rural communities. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/envrnmnt/drugfree/v1hobbs2.htm
  • National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. (2000). No place to hide: Substance abuse in mid-size cities and rural America.
  • Skatrud, J. D., Bennett, T. A., & Loda, F. A. (1998, Winter). An overview of adolescent pregnancy in rural areas. The Journal of Rural Health, 17–27.
  • U.S. Bureau of the Census. (1998). Poverty in the United States: 1997. Current Population Reports, Series P60-201, www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty.html
  • Vissing, Y. M. (1996). Out of sight, out of mind: Homeless children and families in small-town America. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

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