Feeling Safe at School: A National Downward Trend


Since 1993 the Center for Disease Control's Department of Adolescent and School Health (DASH) has asked high school students the following question on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS): "During the past 30 days, on how many days did you not go to school because you felt you would be unsafe at school or on your way to or from school?" Before discussing the 2017 findings and 14-year trend, let's explore the concept of safety

In 1943 American psychologist Abraham Maslow first proposed his Hierarchy of Motivation. This human development theory frames a hierarchy of needs: physiological, safety, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. The model asserts that the physiological needs of food, warmth, and more must be met before safety needs are met, and so on. In this sense, safety is a broad term and describes security, stability, order and freedom from fear.

From a trauma perspective, this sense of safety is no less critical in human development. Dr. Bruce Perry, internationally recognized author and expert on child trauma, suggests that a sense of safety is necessary for optimal child development. As he asserts, children will thrive when their world is safe and predictable, in addition to having consistent emotional nurturing.

School violence has put student safety on a national stage for the last twenty years. Despite the perception of our students' increasing vulnerability in school, the evidence suggests our students are very safe in schools.  Dr. Scott Poland, expert of violence preparation and crisis response in schools teaches the difference between psychological safety and physical safety, advocating for a "balanced, comprehensive programs consisting of prevention, intervention, mental health, security and crisis preparedness components." 

Here are the results of a nationally representative sample of US high school students responding to the question of not going to school because they did not feel safe on their way to school, during school, or on their way home from school:
  • In 2017, 7% of students reported staying home from school at least one day over the last 30 days because they did not feel safe.
  • The prevalence was higher among black and Hispanic students (9%) than white students (4%).
  • The prevalence was higher among 9th- and 10th-grade students (8%) than 11th- and 12th-grade students (5%).
  • During 1993-2017, a significantly greater percentage of students stayed home from school at least one day, from 4% to 7%.
  • Focusing on our students across states and in large urban districts, context matters. The range of students not going to school was 5% to 12%, with a median of 7%.
  • Across 20 large urban districts, the range was 6% to 13%, with a median of 10%.

Why is the sense of safety that our children feel in school decreasing, despite our added preventative measures, our increased crisis preparedness, and our improving identification of mental health concerns? Did the focus of accountability and spotlight on test scores distract our attention and divert our actions away from providing a level of school safety necessary to provide optimal readiness for learning? If Maslow's theory holds true and the neuro-development research remains strong, then our children's physiological, safety and love/belonging needs must be addressed first at school, not just at home.

Perhaps it is time to articulate a vision of our children's success that takes into account their well-being. Perhaps it is time to step back from comprehensive and balanced school safety programs in order to consider the community context and its impact on our children. Perhaps our children are telling us that despite our attempts to protect them, our personal sense of safety may be more influential on their own sense of safety than the precautions and measures that we provide for them.

This issue is deserving of a larger conversation.

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