Abstract: Feeling Safe in School: A Comparison of White and Non-White Student Perceptions of Feeling Safe and Violence Programming in School (Society for Social Work and Research 24th Annual Conference - Reducing Racial and Economic Inequality)

Feeling Safe in School: A Comparison of White and Non-White Student Perceptions of Feeling Safe and Violence Programming in School

Sunday, January 19, 2020
Marquis BR Salon 9, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington DC)
* noted as presenting author
Soohyoung Lee, PhD, Research Associate, Yeshiva University, New York, NY
Matthew Cuellar, PhD, Assistant Professor, Yeshiva University, New York, NY
Background and Purpose: United States public schools have increased their use of various security tactics over the past several decades (e.g., Addington, 2009; Musu-Gullette et al., 2016). However, little is known about racial differences in students’ perceptions of safety strategies and fair programming in schools (Nance, 2016). Current research suggests students of color feel significantly less safe at school compared to white students (Toldston, 2012), and student’s perceptions of safety tactics and their "fairness" might vary by race/ethnicity. However, it is not clear why non-white students feel unsafe and little is known about what types of strategies are viewed as unfair tactics from students’ perspectives. The purpose of this exploratory study is to develop a better understanding of racial differences in perceptions of common safety practices in inner-city schools based on students' level of engagement with these safety practices.

Methods: Data were collected from ninth-grade students across one inner-city school district in the greater New York City area (N=323). The mean age was 14.31 (Range: 13 – 17); 72.1% of students reporting as non-white (24.5% reported as African-American, 61.3% Hispanic, and 88.5% received free/discounted lunch). Engagement with school safety strategies were measured using the School Survey on Crime and Safety (NCES, 2016) (e.g., How often are you searched using a metal detector at school; How often do you interact with school security officer; How often do you participate in conflict resolution training; How often do you participate in student mentoring session). Students’ perceived safety was measured using Maryland’s Safe and Supportive Schools Initiative (Bradshaw, Waasdorp, Debnam, & Johnson, 2014) (e.g., I feel safe at this school; students carrying guns and knives is a problem at your school).

Results: Multi-group multivariate analysis revealed both white and non-white students feel less safe at their school when the frequency of interaction with security officer increases, and this negative effect becomes especially salient for the non-white student. White subgroup reported having problems of carrying guns and knives significantly less when engagement in mentoring session increases, whereas no effects were observed in the non-white subgroup. Overall, students feel safe at school when they reported all races in their school were treated fairly. Fair treatment in school safety was positively associated with engagement in peer mediation training, which in turn was correlated with students' perceptions of having enough programs for violence and conflict in their school. 

Implication: The current study suggests that high-security environments (e.g., Servoss & Finn, 2014) that heavily rely on metal detectors, security personnel, and other authoritarian measures do not affect students’ safety level. Importantly, educational/therapeutic approaches (e.g., mentoring session) as outlined by Nickerson & Spears (2007) might particularly benefit white students over students of color. When developing these strategies, accessibility of resources must be considered and distributed evenly across the student population. School personnel, including administrators, educators, and officers, should consider how their students will have equal access to all strategies without concerning students’ feelings of inequality by race.