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Most US High School Students Feel Safe in School, but Many See Need for Additional Mental Health Services

ACT research suggests student input is important to consider when making decisions about school safety measures

IOWA CITY, Iowa—The large majority of U.S. high school students feel safe in school, but many see a need for more mental health services for students, according to a new report from ACT, the nonprofit organization behind the ACT® test. 

The report, Creating Safe Schools: Examining High School Student Perceptions of Their Physical Safety at School, is based on findings gathered in a survey of 10th- through 12th-grade students who took the ACT test in October 2018.

The report points to three main conclusions:

  • There’s a need for additional mental health services in U.S. high schools.
  • There’s a need to study the effectiveness of measures schools are implementing to improve physical safety.
  • Policymakers and school leaders should take students’ perspectives into account when considering which school safety measures to implement.
“While a majority of students reported feeling safe, nearly one in four said concerns about school safety negatively affect their ability to learn,” said Jim Larimore, chief officer for ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. “Our report is intended to help communities understand student perceptions and address student concerns about school safety so that they don’t interfere with students’ ability to learn.”

Most Students Feel Safe

The overwhelming majority (91 percent) of students agreed at least somewhat that they feel safe in school, with 71 percent saying they agree or strongly agree. And virtually all (97 percent) agreed at least somewhat that they feel safe traveling between home and school.

White and male students were slightly more likely to report feeling safe than were female, black and Hispanic students. In addition, safety varied depending on the size of the school attended, with students attending smaller schools being more likely than those from larger schools to report feeling safe.

Need for Mental Health Services

The findings, however, point to a perceived need among students for more mental health services in schools. Fewer than half (44 percent) of students said their school offered mental health services for students who need them, and more than a third (38 percent) said providing or increasing mental health services in their school would increase their feelings of safety.

Students attending suburban, urban and larger schools were more likely than those in rural and smaller schools to report that mental health services were available for students who needed them.

Students Divided on Arming Teachers

Students were divided on the idea of arming teachers as a way to increase school safety.

Overall, nearly half (46 percent) of students said they oppose the idea of providing teachers and staff members with special training to carry guns in school buildings, while 34 percent said they favor it and 19 percent were neutral.

Further, 38 percent said they believed their school would be less safe if teachers and staff members were armed, while 32 percent believed their school would be safer. Thirty percent reported that schools would be about as safe as they currently are.

Black, Hispanic, Asian and female students were much more likely than white and male students to oppose arming teachers. In fact, the majority of black students and more than four in ten Hispanic students said such a measure would make schools less safe. In addition, students attending large schools and urban schools were more likely than those in small schools and rural schools to oppose arming teachers.


The ACT report offers three major recommendations based on the survey findings:

  • Federal and state funding should be provided to expand and promote the availability of school mental health services.
  • Additional research should be conducted to examine the effectiveness and unintended consequences of safety measures.
  • Policymakers must ensure that the perspectives of their students are taken into account when considering which school safety measures to implement.
“Given the connection between student learning and safety in school, we think it’s vital to capture students’ voices on this topic and use their perspective to inform improvements,” said Gretchen Guffy, ACT senior director of state and federal policy.

The Research

This research is part of a series of ACT student surveys about various issues related to student learning. This topic was chosen based on the nationwide focus on and concern about school safety and the potential correlation between school safety and student performance.

The results are based on a sample of approximately 16,000 10th- through 12th-grade students who took the ACT test and then completed the optional survey that was sent to them afterward.

The full report can be accessed on ACT’s website:

About the Center for Equity in Learning

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning focuses on closing gaps in equity, opportunity, and achievement for underserved populations and working learners. Through purposeful investments, employee engagement, and thoughtful advocacy efforts, the Center supports innovative partnerships, actionable research, initiatives, campaigns, and programs to further ACT’s mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success.

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About ACT

ACT is a mission-driven, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people achieve education and workplace success. Grounded in 60 years of research, ACT is a trusted leader in college and career readiness solutions. Each year, ACT serves millions of students, job seekers, schools, government agencies and employers in the US and around the world with learning resources, assessments, research and credentials designed to help them succeed from elementary school through career.