The Relationship Between Student Perceptions of Safety and Academic Performance

May 2016

School safety has been a topic of concern for educators, parents, and researchers for decades. It is important for students to have a safe learning environment to ensure they have the best possible opportunity to succeed academically. Further, it is necessary to discuss the many factors that influence student perceptions of safety, so stakeholders can determine best practices for creating a school climate conducive to academic success. To achieve this, it is essential to understand the factors that influence school safety, and how student perceptions of safety impact their wellbeing and academic performance.

It is necessary to discuss the many factors that influence student perceptions of safety, so stakeholders can determine best practices for creating a school climate conducive to academic success.

Research has observed the impact of school safety on student emotional or psychological states, conduct problems, activity levels, and peer interactions.5,19 Students may be exposed to alcohol and drug use, weapons, and fights both on and off campus, which compromises the safety of students and the overall climate of a school. This is problematic, as studies suggest that students who are exposed to violent activity may experience emotional or psychological distress.5 Students who fear for their safety will be distracted and unable to fully focus their attention on learning,14 subsequently exposure to crime and violence negatively impacts academic involvement and performance.5,19

Student Perceptions of Safety and School Climate

Research suggests that student perceptions of safety play an important role in their ability to succeed at school.3,5,11,18 Students who feel unsafe at school are less engaged in classroom activities10 and have higher rates of absenteeism.3 Conversely, students who feel safe exhibit fewer depressive symptoms,10 have fewer conduct problems, and are more likely to have positive peer interactions.5

Student perceptions of school climate and safety may differ substantially from the perceptions of their teachers. One study found that students were more likely to report higher perceived danger and lower perceived connectedness than teachers.14 Connectedness is particularly important, as students with higher levels of school attachment and connectedness are more likely to report feeling safe at school.9,14 School attachment and connectedness, although important, are a just part of what is needed to make students feel safe. Student perceptions of safety are influenced by a range of factors, including school climate.

School climate is a broad concept that is concerned with the way students, teachers, and parents perceive their campus, and the academic, social and emotional potential it presents.2,11 School climate is shaped by a variety of tangible and intangible elements, including staff and student relationships, institutional environment, organizational structure, institutional practices, values, teaching and learning environment, and safety.8,11,17 Much research has emphasized the importance of school climate in student perceptions of safety.1,6,13,15 Students who perceive their environment to be unsafe may have difficulty focusing on school tasks and are more likely to miss school.18 Research suggests that school environment and student perceptions of safety impact academic performance.3,20 The condition of school facilities, community factors, the physical environment of the school,3,17 and peer relationships are associated with student academic performance.16 Further, schools that are perceived to be unsafe have lower attendance rates and higher rates of chronic absences.3 For instance, one study found that higher crime rates, poor building conditions, and higher levels of pollution were all associated with a decrease in school attendance among students.3 It is important to note that daily disruptions, school climate, and connectedness, rather than serious violent activity, are the primary contributors to student perceptions of safety.14

Creating an Environment Conducive to Academic Success

Although there are many factors that contribute to students feeling unsafe on campus, steps can be taken to improve student perceptions of safety. Research suggests that the right school climate encourages higher academic achievement.7,10 Students and faculty consistently identify the same school features that influence their perceptions of safety.4,14 Physical security features, school climate, and relationships between school employees and students are key factors in perceptions of safety.4,14 Further, higher levels of school attachment and connectedness are positively associated with student perceptions of safety.9

Physical security features, school climate, and relationships between school employees and students are key factors in perceptions of safety.

Some research indicates that students are more likely to feel safe at school when they are informed of school safety measures.9 Visible security measures, such as security cameras, school officers, locked doors, and school fences or gates may be useful measures in influencing perceptions of safety.7 Institutional practices, like having clearly defined rules, safety drills, and emergency procedures also play a role in student perceptions of safety.7,12 Further, the actions and attitudes of school staff are of the utmost importance in creating an environment conducive to safety and academic success.7,12,4,14


1 Astor RA, Benbenishty R, Zeira A, Vinokur A. School climate, observed risky behaviors, and victimization as predictors of high school students’ fear and judgments of school violence as a problem. Health Education Behavior, 2002;29:716.

2 Bear, G. G., Yang, C., Pell, M., & Gaskins, C. (2014). Validation of a brief measure of teachers’ perceptions of school climate: Relations to student achievement and suspensions. Learning Environments Research, 17(3), 339-354.

3 Berman, J. D., McCormack, M. C., Koehler, K. A., Connolly, F., Clemons-Erby, D., Davis, M. F., Gummerson, C., Leaf, P.J., Jones, T.D., & Curriero, F. C. (2018). School environmental conditions and links to academic performance and absenteeism in urban, mid-Atlantic public schools. International journal of hygiene and environmental health.

4 Bosworth, K., Ford, L., & Hernandaz, D. (2011). School climate factors contributing to student and faculty perceptions of safety in select Arizona schools. Journal of school health, 81(4), 194-201.

5 Bowen, N. K., & Bowen, G. L. (1999). Effects of crime and violence in neighborhoods and schools on the school behavior and performance of adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research, 14(3), 319-342.

6 Bradshaw CP, Sawyer AL, Brennan LM. A social disorganization perspective on bullying-related attitudes and behaviors: the influence of school context. American Journal of Community Psychology. 2009;43(3-4):204.

7 Brand, S., Felner, R., Shim, M., Seitsinger, A., & Dumas, T. (2003). Middle school improvement and reform: Development and validation of a school-level assessment of climate, cultural pluralism, and school safety. Journal of educational psychology, 95(3), 570.

8 Cohen, J., McCabe, L., Michelli, N. M., & Pickeral, T. (2009). School climate: Research, policy, practice, and teacher education. Teachers college record, 111(1), 180-213.

9 Connell, N. M. (2018). Fear of crime at school: understanding student perceptions of safety as function of historical context. Youth violence and juvenile justice, 16(2), 124-136.

10 Côté-Lussier, C., & Fitzpatrick, C. (2016). Feelings of safety at school, socioemotional functioning, and classroom engagement. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(5), 543-550.

11 Durham, R. E., Bettencourt, A., & Connolly, F. (2014). Measuring School Climate: Using Existing Data Tools on Climate and Effectiveness to Inform School Organizational Health. Baltimore Education Research Consortium.

12 Fan, W., Williams, C. M., & Corkin, D. M. (2011). A multilevel analysis of student perceptions of school climate: The effect of social and academic risk factors. Psychology in the Schools, 48(6), 632-647.

13 Gottfredson GD, Gottfredson DC, Payne AA, Gottfredson N. School climate predictors of school disorder: results from a national study of delinquency prevention in schools. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 2005;42:412.

14 Jimerson SR, Furlong MJ. Handbook of School Violence And School Safety: From Research to Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2006.

15 Johnson SL. Improving the school environment to reduce school violence: a review of the literature. Journal of School Health. 2009;79(10):451.

16 Juvonen, J., Wang, Y., & Espinoza, G. (2011). Bullying experiences and compromised academic performance across middle school grades. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 31(1), 152-173.

17 Kwong, D., & Davis, J. R. (2015). School Climate for Academic Success: A Multilevel Analysis of School Climate and Student Outcomes. Journal of Research in Education, 25(2), 68-81.

18 Milam, A. J., Furr-Holden, C. D. M., & Leaf, P. J. (2010). Perceived school and neighborhood safety, neighborhood violence and academic achievement in urban school children. The Urban Review, 42(5), 458-467.

19 Ratner, H. H., Chiodo, L., Covington, C., Sokol, R. J., Ager, J., & Delaney-Black, V. (2006). Violence exposure, IQ, academic performance, and children's perception of safety: Evidence of protective effects. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly (1982-), 264-287.

20 Voight, A., Austin, G., & Hanson, T. (2013). A Climate for Academic Success: How School Climate Distinguishes Schools That Are Beating the Achievement Odds. Full Report. California Comprehensive Center at WestEd.