Being the victim of violence can have drastic effects on children’s lives, including increasing their odds of dropping out of high school, according to new research.

A study called “Child Abuse, Sexual Assault, Community Violence and High School Graduation” showed that girls who had experienced childhood violence were 24 percent more likely to drop out than their peers, while boys in the same situation were 26 percent more likely. Co-authored by William Darity, Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy at Duke, the research was published in the November issue of the journal Review of Behavioral Economics.

The researchers examined data from more than 8,800 respondents in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication and the National Survey of American Life. They found that 34 percent of female respondents and 29 percent of male respondents had been the victim of violence before age 16. In addition, 21 percent of women and six percent of men had experienced sexual assault. 

“Actually, we were stunned by the magnitude of the violence directed against young women and young men,” Darity said in a Duke Today release. 

The dropout rate for these individuals who had been victims of violence before age 16 was compared with those who had not experienced violence. Violent experiences were categorized as either child abuse, sexual assault or community violence, which was violence that occurred outside the home such as mugging. 

Researchers found that both male and female victims of home violence dropped out at a greater rate than those who had not experienced violence. 

“These assaults are not confined to any social class, racial or ethnic group,” Darity said in the release. “This is authentically an American problem. One of its manifestations is the negative effect on persistence in school for many of the victims.”

Arthur Goldsmith, Jackson T. Stephens professor of economics at Washington and Lee University and a co-author of the study, explained that exposure to traumatic experience might make it harder for kids to focus on their schoolwork.

“It has effects on brain structure,” he said. “Your hippocampus, which deals with learning, [and] where you form and store memories, doesn't function as well if you’re subject to systematic stress."

Women who suffered from both sexual assault and child abuse were most likely to drop out of high school. Among men, those who had experienced both child abuse and community violence had the highest dropout rate. 

Goldsmith noted that home violence is particularly problematic for kids.

“The home is supposed to be a very secure place,” he said. “When somebody either witnesses directly or is the recipient of violent acts in this place, we think it damages a sense of comfort.”

In addition, the researchers found that men suffered more from community violence than women, at a rate of 12 percent versus three percent, whereas women were more likely to be victims of sexual assault. However, both males and females who had been victims of sexual assault, but no other violence, were no more likely to drop out. 

Goldsmith explained that the research is useful in spreading awareness of how children in the United States are subject to violence at an extraordinarily high rate. 

“That should concern all of us,” he said. “Any kinds of policies or educational programs need to help families understand that violence is prevalent in our society and that it is detrimental to the educational attainment of their children.”

Tim Diette, the Harry E. and Mary Jayne W. Redenbaugh associate term professor of economics at Washington and Lee University, noted that the research can also provide support for examining policies outside of schools, such as social services. 

“How can we identify homes where children are at risk?” Diette, who was also an author of the study, asked. “How can we make it less likely that they experience violence?” 

However, he noted that the study could not conclude that experiencing violence directly caused students to drop out. Other factors involving the home environment could also contribute. 

In the future, the researchers plan to examine whether African American and white children are exposed to violence at similar rates and whether they are equivalently impacted by being victims of violence, Goldsmith said. This could be helpful in understanding gaps in life and course outcomes between racial groups.  

Diette added that they are interested in broader implications of how early traumatic experiences can affect people later in life. 

“We want to explore childhood more fully,” he said. “What sort of characteristics in households lead to thriving kids? What helps produce individuals that thrive?”