Can Feeling Safe Affect Your Health?

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on how a diverse set of school opportunities can IMPACT communitY health.

Health starts in our homes, schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities… but what does “healthy” look like? This post is the third in a series on the social factors (or determinants) of healthy people. As previously discussed, neighborhoods and schools play a major role in our well-being, and today, we’re highlighting the way feeling fear in schools can influence the health and success of a student (and special thanks again to Corey DeAngelis and others who recently shared these studies).


Some close friends recently described the personality shift that took place when their daughter did not feel safe at school. She started pretending to be sick every morning so she would not have to attend. Her school environment induced fear, and fear altered her self-assurance, confidence, and overall well-being.

School safety is of utmost importance. But the recorded violence statistics of a school can’t always produce a clear picture of how students feel in their school environment. In “Too Scared to Learn? The Academic Consequences of Feeling Unsafe at School,” researchers explore the impact of feeling unsafe. They studied the reported responses of more than 340,000 students asking how safe students feel at school. Then, they compared their responses to academic outcomes. Their findings show consistent negative effects of feeling unsafe on test scores. Unfortunately, academic success is not the only aspect of the school experience impacted by fear. Another study in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing found a relationship between feeling unsafe at school and other risky health-related behaviors such as drinking alcohol, carrying guns, and staying up late.

Considering the impact on health factors, policymakers should be concerned with more than general safety, but should also take into account student feelings of safety (or the lack thereof). One policy, in particular, has the power to aggravate fearful feelings. When students are afraid at school, but school assignment makes them powerless to change their conditions, their circumstances only produce more fear. Students who feel unsafe combined with a sense of “no hope or no way out” have a very different experience than students who may feel unsafe but who feel like they can escape their circumstances. With the opportunity to switch schools, students can consider the reality of their fears and leave if danger feels severe.

Take this study for example. Two groups of students were surveyed about how safe they felt at school. One group received the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship, allowing them to attend a private school other than their assigned school. Another group, the control group, continued attending their regular assigned school. 59.2% of students who received the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship responded saying they felt “very safe” at school while only 43.7% students in their assigned school felt “very safe.” 

Likewise, when parents were asked how safe they felt their children were at school, D.C Opportunity Scholarship parents felt the environment was overwhelmingly safer. 74.2% of parents whose children received the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship responded that they felt their children were “very safe” while only 54.7% percent of parents whose children attended an assigned school reported that they felt their children were “very safe” (And this is not the only study that points this out).

When students can leave a school if they are unhappy or when they feel unsafe, schools are forced to make sure they have safe and satisfied customers.  In contrast, when students are assigned to a school, and their families don’t have the financial means to move, they are stuck with more fear and anxiety. Truancy laws require that children attend school whether they feel safe or not. It’s no wonder that families feel safer when they have some power over the choice of school that their children attend. With more control, families move from feeling trapped to empowered, ultimately leading to a healthier life.  

Did you miss the first two posts in the series? Check out: