Abstract: Perceived Safety in the Postsecondary Learning Environment: A Phenomenological Study (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Perceived Safety in the Postsecondary Learning Environment: A Phenomenological Study

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Monument, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer Ballard-Kang, MSSW, Doctoral Candidate/Graduate Assistant, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
Ariel Washington, MSSW, Doctoral Candidate/Graduate Assistant, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY
A lack of perceived safety within the learning environment has been shown to have a negative effect on engagement for undergraduate students. Despite the importance of students’ perceptions of safety, research in the postsecondary education context has suffered from an overemphasis on threats to physical safety and a disconnection from research on issues related to diversity and inclusion. Studies have found support for the conceptualization of safety developed by the National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments; however, these studies are specific to the K-12 context, and the validity of this conceptualization has not been examined with undergraduate students. To fill this gap, a qualitative study was conducted with the purpose of developing a conceptualization of perceived safety for undergraduate students in the on-campus postsecondary learning environment that was grounded in the experiences of students. Phenomenology was chosen as the most appropriate research methodology for understanding the construct of perceived safety from the student perspective because it allows the researcher to develop descriptions of the essence of the lived experiences of participants by suspending judgements about what is real.

Research Questions

  1. How do students describe their experiences of safety in the college classroom?
  2. How do students define safety in the college classroom?
  3. What dimensions of safety are relevant in this context?


A criterion sampling method focused on maximum variation was utilized, and the sample consisted of 11 subjects (64% non-male, 45% non-White, and 36% non-heterosexual) recruited from four undergraduate core elective courses. Semi-structured interviews were approximately 60 minutes in length and focused primarily on questions outlined on the interview protocol, with follow-up questions added as appropriate. This study utilized a descriptive phenomenological approach to analyzing the data outlined by Giorgi, and trustworthiness of the qualitative analysis was enhanced through the practices of peer debriefing, memoing and bracketing. The qualitative analysis software, Dedoose, was used to facilitate data analysis and allow for inter-rater reliability measurement.  Results of the analysis were provided to 5 additional participants from the same population, and findings from these member checking interviews were then used to revise the narrative description and graphic representation of the phenomenon.

Results of the study include a narrative summary of the phenomenon in which perceived safety is defined as the degree to which a student perceives themselves as protected from being harmed by oneself or others or causing harm to oneself or others. A student’s perception of safety involves an interaction between the student and the learning environment and differs from the concept of a “safe” learning environment. Initial analyses provided evidence of perceived safety as either a three or four-dimensional construct; however, member checking supported a conceptualization consisting of the following four dimensions: physical safety, psychological safety, intellectual safety, and socio-cultural identity safety. In the future, a brief measurement instrument of perceived safety will be developed based on this conceptualization that can be used as a tool for social work educators and students to prepare for the difficult discussions that are critical to quality social work education.