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Keeping Children Safe – The Importance of Prevention

The term prevention is applied in many contexts. Often it is classified into three types:
primary, secondary, and tertiary. 20 Primary prevention in the context of this Manual focuses on work within the school and community to stop child maltreatment before it starts. Secondary prevention is focused on individuals or families in which maltreatment is more likely (high risk), and tertiary prevention is targeted toward families when maltreatment has already occurred or is suspected and is designed to prevent any reoccurrence.

The ideal societal approach to prevention encompasses all three levels, which results in a comprehensive service framework focused on improving outcomes for children and families. Although the bulk of primary, secondary and tertiary prevention services and programs are carried out by collaborations of social service, community, and public health agencies, schools can and do play a vital role in protecting children from abuse and neglect, and in mitigating the debilitating effects of maltreatment that has already taken place.

Educators know that schools have a responsibility to ensure that their students are available to learn. A safe school environment is one where students of all ages feel physically, emotionally, and socially comfortable. They know that their needs are taken care of and that they are protected by caring and supportive teachers and members of their community. It is no surprise that children learn best when they feel safe. As a protective factor, school connectedness can improve both student health and academic achievement – important for all children and youth, but especially so for those who may be at-risk. 21 Where conditions or circumstances exist – either in the school environment or outside of it – that disturb and disrupt that sense of safety and connectedness, students can find it both physically and emotionally harder to learn and easier to act out or drop out. Yet, the voices of students and their teachers tell us that a significant number of them continue to feel unsafe at school.

The National Center for Education Statistics and the Institute of Education Sciences, in collaboration with the Bureau of Justice Statistics publish an annual report on school crime and student safety. Their most recent report (and update) 22 , 23 covers topics such as personal victimization, teacher injury, bullying/cyber-bullying, sexual assault, school conditions, fights, weapons, the availability of, and student use of drugs and alcohol, and student perceptions of personal safety at school.

The report states that in the 2017–18 school year, about 80% of public schools in the U.S. recorded one or more violent incidents, and 21% recorded one or more serious violent incidents. In 2017, 4-6% of students in Grades 6–10 reported being afraid that someone would attack or harm them at school, and 3% in the same grades reported they were afraid of being attacked or harmed when away from school. In the same year, about 6% of students related that they avoided at least one school activity (or one or more places in school) during the previous school year because they feared being attacked or harmed. 24

A more recent (2021) literature review 25 of 43 studies – mostly from the US – on students’ perception of their safety in school reported that 19.4% of students in Grades 3–12 felt unsafe at school. Many of the studies reviewed identified school-related environments where students are most likely to feel unsafe as: on the bus, walking or biking to and from school, in the cafeteria, near their lockers, in the halls, on the playground, and in gym locker rooms or showers. A common factor in these locations was the absence of a trusted adult or teacher with formal responsibility for monitoring the area.

Closer to home, statistics reported in 2019 by the Massachusetts Departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and Public Health 26 , indicate that 21.8% of high school students reported being offered, sold, or given an illegal drug by someone on school property during the previous 12 months. Ten percent (10%) of attending high school students reported having carried a weapon in the previous 30 days (3% identified that weapon as a gun), and 6.4% reported skipping school in the past 30 days because they felt unsafe. The same percentage (6.4%) were involved in a fight while in school during the past year. During the same period, thirty-five percent (35%) of middle school students reported being bullied at school, while 15% reported being victims of cyber-bullying in the last 12 months.

A school must be safe. Creating a safe school environment requires a comprehensive framework that includes – among other things – a clear set of policies and procedures, attention to the security and safety of the facilities; creation of codes of conduct for student, staff, and visitor behavior and interaction; staff pre-employment and volunteer screening; frequent and effective communication with parents, families, and the school community; staff training and professional development; periodic assessment; and actions focused on sustainability. These safety elements combine into a comprehensive organizational framework that is proactive in terms of preventing child abuse and other forms of victimization because it anticipates how and where students can be harmed and actively works to deny the opportunities for it to occur. This prevention framework facilitates training, communication, and organizational structures that work together to help staff recognize abuse and victimization (whether suspected or already taking place). Further, this initiative guides educators on how to stop and report abuse and victimization as quickly and effectively as possible.

20 https://www.iwh.on.ca/what-researchers-mean-by/primary-secondary-and-tertiary-prevention

21 CDC (2019). Fostering School Connectedness: Improving Student Health and Academic Achievement: Information for School Districts and School Administrators (https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/21067).

22 Wang, K., Chen, Y., Zhang, J., and Oudekerk, B.A. (2020). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2019 (NCES 2020-063/NCJ 254485). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC. (https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2020/2020063.pdf)

23 Irwin, V., Wang, K., Cui, J., Zhang, J., and Thompson, A. (2021). Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2020 (NCES 2021-092/NCJ 300772). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC. Retrieved 12/29/21 from. https://bjs.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh236/files/media/document/iscs20.pdf

24 NOTE: “Avoided school activities or one or more places in the school” includes avoiding any (extracurricular) activities, avoiding any classes, staying home from school, avoiding entrance to the school, hallways or stairs in school, parts of the school cafeteria, school restrooms, and other places inside the school building.

25 Feeling Unsafe at School and Associated Mental Health Difficulties among Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review (2021), Children (Basel). 2021 Mar; 8(3): 232. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8002666/

26 The Health and Risk Behaviors of Massachusetts Youth, 2019. (https://www.mass.gov/doc/health-and-risk-behaviors-of-massachusetts-youth-2019/download)


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