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School Safety Takes on New Meaning as Students Return to Classrooms Amid COVID-19

ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning Offers Policy Recommendations that Reflect Students’ Views

IOWA CITY, Iowa — As millions of American high school students return to classrooms this fall, their concerns about physical safety, which existed prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, deserve careful analysis and consideration by school administrators and policy makers.

In a new report by ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning, “What Do Students Say About School Safety,” students say schools need additional mental health resources and want school leaders to better listen to their concerns. According to the report, which surveyed high school students who took the ACT test as part of a national administration in late 2018, students want to be engaged and included in conversations around school safety and decisions that affect them.

Authors of the new report examined students’ responses to open-ended questions from a survey that asked them to document their thoughts, feelings and concerns about school safety.

The analysis found that while 75 percent of students said they felt safe at school:

  • Many students said their schools could improve on safety. Students reported safety issues associated with traveling outside between buildings for class, being in buildings that did not have locked doors, a lack of proper emergency plans or drills, or school staff not doing enough about school threats. For example, one student stated, “[W]hen a former student attempted an attack on my school at the end of last year, I did not feel like my school was a safe place or that it was handled well. I believe that situation has been swept under the rug and there are still things that need to be addressed in the aftermath of what happened.”
  • Nine percent of respondents said they felt unsafe at school. A student commented that, “[O]ne of the students at my school was caught carrying a gun. I felt unsafe because we don’t have any type of metal detectors at my school to search out students [who might bring a gun to school].”
  • Students who reported feeling unsafe also commented on racist and homophobic incidents, and a need for school officials to identify and stop behaviors that they deemed racially insensitive, like wearing confederacy-related clothing.
  • The most common student suggestion for increasing feelings of safety in school was to increase mental health resources. The need for more school counselors was referenced by 17 percent of these students. One student wrote, “What happens is that the guidance counselors and school psychologist are a mere reroute to actual therapists, and thus they themselves cannot offer any help to students. If they were trained in basic therapy, they may be able to do more to help students.”
  • Sixty-seven percent of respondents indicated they did not want teachers or administrators to be trained to carry guns, while 21 percent said that these individuals should be trained. Further, students of color were more likely to oppose this idea than white students (Hispanic 54 percent vs, white 39 percent vs, Black 66 percent), and females were more likely to oppose this than males (54 percent vs. 35 percent).

“Students’ voices are a critical input in conversations about school safety,” said Tina Gridiron, vice president of ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. “School policies disproportionately affect students of color and that can lead to their feeling unsafe at school—and be a barrier to their learning and success. We must ensure that students are heard and included in discussions and decisions about school safety, and that administrators don’t overlook important physical safety and mental health issues that students are facing.”

ACT Policy Recommendations to Improve School Safety

  • Federal and state funding should promote the availability and improve the access and quality of school mental health services. Although persons with mental illness are not more likely to commit violence, mental health services were the most frequently requested safety measure. Given that the pandemic may have a negative impact on students’ mental health, students may be returning to school with additional mental health needs above and beyond what was needed in the past. This is concerning because, prior to the pandemic, students responding to an ACT survey had reported that their schools’ mental health services were insufficient making access to high-quality school-based mental health services more important than ever.
  • Policymakers should include students’ perspectives when considering which school safety measures to implement. While some students identified additional safety measures that could be taken, others believed there were already too many safety measures implemented and some needed to be discontinued. Such a range suggests that policymakers should gather and use student input to help evaluate particular options to better support a safe learning environment for all students.
The latest report builds on two earlier reports in the series:

  • Creating Safe Schools,” in which 23 percent of respondents reported that concerns about safety negatively affected their ability to learn and 38 percent indicated that providing/increasing mental health services for students who need them would increase feelings of safety; and
  • Supporting the Mental Health Well-Being of High School Students,” which found students who attended schools in rural areas had less access to basic school-based mental health services compared to students in suburban or urban locations (71 percent of suburban students, compared to 65 percent of rural students, can access a school-based professional to talk about certain mental health issues). Additionally, African American students were less likely than white students to say that they could reach out to a teacher or counselor if they needed mental health support (for example, 48 percent of African American students compared to 57 percent of white students said they could reach out to a teacher).

About ACT’s 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.