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Factors that help students feel safer at school identified in study

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L. Brian Stauffer

A  new study by graduate researcher Jun Sung Hong (pictured) and faculty member Mary Keegan Eamon, both in the School of Social Work, found that whether adolescents’ feel vulnerable to violence at school depends on factors such as being able to make friends easily at school and regularly conversing with their parents about their concerns.

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9/11/2012 | Sharita Forrest, Education and Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Incidents such as the one that took place at Normal Community High School on Friday (Sept. 7), during which a student armed with a gun briefly took classmates and a teacher hostage at the Illinois school before being subdued, provide sobering reminders that crisis plans are as imperative as lesson plans in U.S. schools today.

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Social Work professor Mary Keegan Eamon co-led the study that examined the relationship of children's perceptions of school safety with various demographic characteristics of the children, their families and their home and school environments. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

While education and safety experts and parent-teacher organizations long have promoted parental involvement as key to maintaining safe school environments, a study of children 10 to 14 years old by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that parents’ presence has little impact on whether young people perceive their schools as safe.

So, then what does help students feel safer at school? Frequent parent-child discussions at home about academics, school activities and other concerns along with teacher involvement, rule enforcement and being able to make friends easily at school, said the researchers, Jun Sung Hong, a doctoral student, and Mary Keegan Eamon, a faculty member, both in the School of Social Work at Illinois. Their study appeared recently in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.

Using a nationally representative data set of more than 1,200 young people, Hong and Eamon examined the relationship of children’s perceptions of school safety with various socio-demographic characteristics of the children, their families and their home and school environments.

While the majority of students in the study had no concerns about school safety, close to a third of the young people perceived their schools as unsafe to some degree.

Not surprisingly, children living in poverty, in neighborhoods with higher crime rates and who attended inner city schools were more likely to perceive their school environments as dangerous.

“Students who feel that their neighborhood is safe are less likely to feel unsafe in school,” Hong said. “This is very important because there haven’t been a lot of studies on school violence or bullying that looked at neighborhood safety.”

However, the children’s perceptions of being unsafe in school significantly decreased relative to how frequently they discussed their studies, school activities and other concerns with their parents, although direct parent involvement in the school had little impact.

Perhaps children who had better communication with their parents were “more willing to discuss what’s going on in school and felt their parents might do something to try to protect them or make things better for them,” Eamon said. “Keeping that communication open with children about what’s going on in schools seems to be very important.

“It really surprised us that none of the other parent variables – school involvement, attending school meetings/events, volunteering at the school or speaking with the teachers – was significantly related to kids’ perceptions of safety,” Eamon said. “You’d think that the more parents were involved in the school system, the more likely it would be that kids would perceive it as safer, just because the parents might see that there are problems and be more involved in fixing them, but we didn’t find anything” that corroborated that.

Parental involvement in schools might have more impact on younger children’s perceptions of safety than on early adolescents, who tend to rely less on their parents and more on their peers, Hong said.

Children in the study who had seen a peer carrying a weapon at school were 70 percent more likely to perceive their schools as unsafe, as were male students and older students.

While rule enforcement increased perceptions of safety among study participants, other studies have indicated that stringent security and punitive measures such as installing metal detectors and implementing “zero tolerance” anti-violence policies can backfire, exacerbating behavioral problems among at-risk youth, heightening students’ fear of being victimized and potentially marginalizing or unfairly penalizing minority students.

The researchers suggested a variety of interventions at the family, school and neighborhood levels, including schools’ adopting anti-violence policies in combination with “whole school” interventions that target all students rather than individuals or groups of students. Social workers might also advocate for  community programs that reduce violence in neighborhoods and protect children as they walk to and from school.

Hong and Eamon also recommended that school officials, community leaders and gun-control organizations work together to reduce weapon carrying and weapon-related school violence, and pointed to the Baton Rouge Partnership for Prevention of Juvenile Gun Violence as a possible example. Implemented in Baton Rouge, La., in late 1997, the initiative involves multiple police and community agencies in comprehensive intervention, treatment and prevention strategies for young people on probation for gun-related offenses, and it provides services for their family members.

During its first three years, the partnership significantly reduced the number of school expulsions, re-arrests and fear of violence among youth in the program along with firearms-related crimes in the targeted area.

Editor's note: Contacts: Jun Sung Hong, jhong23@illinois.edu or 217-333-2261; Mary Keegan Eamon: eamon@illinois.edu, 217-244-5238.

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