Where Do Kids Feel Safe at School?

Give them a camera and find out

When students feel unsafe at school, they’re less likely to attend regularly; their grades and academic engagement suffer; and they’re unlikely to form close bonds with their peers and teachers. Previous research examining students’ sense of safety at school has relied mostly on surveys, interviews, and focus groups. To build on this work, I incorporated visual-research techniques — namely the use of photography and mapping — to study where and why students feel safe and unsafe in certain areas of their campus. Here’s what I discovered working with 20, predominantly Latino, students in one urban middle school in northern California:

The Library is the safest place on campus. According to students, their library provided a quiet venue for them to reflect on their lives. It was a place “to let all your thoughts out” and “imagine anything as if you’re in bed dreaming good thoughts.” Students characterized the library as “comforting,” where they can be “free of worries or distractions” and away from “drama, people, and tests.”

Students feel welcome at the front gates of their school. Twenty five percent of the students photographed the front entrance of their school and identified it as a welcoming area on their campus. They expressed appreciation for the greetings they received from adults as well as their peers as they walked onto campus. One student described it this way, “This is the gateway into our school and in through those huge purple gates your friends run up to you screaming your name, racing to give you a hug…Everyone coming to greet you makes you feel wanted, welcome, and very happy to be at school.”

Less-supervised restrooms were dangerous places to be. Students identified the restrooms near their outdoor soccer field as unsafe. One female student said, “The bathroom feels unsafe to me because other girls in the bathroom can give you dirty looks and talk about you. Teachers can’t see what other students do in the bathroom. People might fight each other in there.” Intimidation in these restrooms were also reported by male students; one student said “There would be always like one, two, or three people coming in and destroying the soap dispenser, the paper towels, and I usually just be as quiet as possible and make myself like not appear.”

Youth are natural storytellers and the use of photographs, maps, and other visual artifacts allow them to give voice to their concerns and lived experiences. This study revealed that positive spaces on campus were those that provided students with some type of support, including the opportunity to retreat with a good book or just be by themselves to daydream and detach from the daily pressures of school. While most of us think that adolescence is marked by an increased desire to socialize with peers, teens during this period are also learning how to be comfortable with being alone.

This study also revealed that students perceived unsafe spaces as those which lacked adult monitoring and where ownership and responsibility for the space were arbitrary and unclear. Further, the more remote or congested the area, the more it provoked anxiety among students. By not having teachers or other adults around to supervise the area, students reported an increased sense of being verbally, socially, or physically harassed.

School safety continues to be a major concern in middle school, largely due to a spike in bullying behaviors during this period. Creating safe spaces at school is a complex and ongoing process — one that involves constant attention and assessment. By allowing students the means to provide their perspective directly, it highlights critical aspects of their lives that may be overlooked by adults.