Study Suggests Midwest Fifth-Graders Feel Unsafe at School

MADISON - In a finding that surprised the research team, more than 20 percent of fifth-graders say they sometimes or always feel unsafe at school.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing study of Midwestern fifth-graders also found that more than 40 percent of children surveyed said they feel unsafe going to or from school.

The study surveyed 243 fifth-graders in two large Midwestern school districts as part of the Parent-Child Communication and Health Risk Behavior study. The study examined how 10-year-old children articulate their experiences of feeling unsafe at school.

Children in the study defined 'unsafe' in terms of direct or observed teasing, threats, and bullying, and environmental stressors such as weather or intruders. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Nursing Research.

"We were surprised that children this young would feel unsafe at school," said co-author Dr. Susan Riesch, professor of nursing.


"Though there has been much in the press about things that happen at school, this mostly occurs in middle or high school. With notable exceptions, I think most adults remember elementary school as a relatively harmless time in our lives and think that kids this young couldn't have serious concerns at school."

Of the 57 students (23 percent of the total sample) who reported sometimes or always feeling unsafe at school:

  • 24 students (42 percent) said they sometimes or usually felt unsafe going to or coming home from school
  • 22 students (39 percent) said they believed that feeling unsafe caused them to have emotional problems
  • 11 students (19 percent) gave up important activities because they didn't feel safe
  • Seven students (12 percent) were threatened or hurt because of race or color
  • Five students (nine percent) missed one or more school days due to feeling unsafe

Factors such as the race of parent and child, the parents' marital status; family income; and parents' educational level did not seem to affect children's perceptions of safety.

Riesch says a key reason to study children's perceptions is the correlation between children feeling unsafe and risk-taking behaviors.

"Research has shown that seventh and eighth graders who felt unsafe at school attempted to counter that feeling in a lot of different ways: by bringing weapons such as a gun or knife to school, getting into physical fights, using alcohol or other drugs, not getting enough sleep, and missing school due to illness," said Riesch.

"In my opinion, kids are not worrying about the horrific events that make the news," she said. "They're worrying about the daily uncivil behavior, the bullying, and social exclusion that makes their lives less fun.  Some skip activities or school to avoid what we adults might think of as hassles, but they take them very seriously and emotionally."


Helping Kids Feel Safer

So what can be done to make kids feel safer?

"Have a zero tolerance for bullying," she said. "Make sure that an adult presence is obvious in all areas of the school and school grounds. Thoroughly explain the remote possibility of weather and intruders, but accept the necessity of being prepared for either. Always include and communicate with parents in planning activities to counter bullying and teasing. School safety is a huge, contemporary issue and the findings of our study just scratch the surface of the potential work to be done in this area."


Date Published: 09/08/2010

News tag(s):  childrenouruwhealthparenting

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