Feeling safe is a basic and fundamentally important need. It is well known that when students—or adults—do not feel safe, it undermines learning, teaching and healthy development.

Historically, schools have paid attention to physical safety. On the other hand, schools have paid less attention to social and emotional safety. In our school climate assessment work with schools, one of the most common problems we discover is that bully-victim behavior is rampant and contributes to students feeling unsafe: socially, emotionally and too often, physically as well. There is a growing awareness that bully-victim behavior undermines students feeling safe in school. And, as a result it undermines their ability to learn and develop in healthy ways.


To the extent that students do not feel safe, we suggest that this is the most important school climate improvement goal that needs to be focused on.


There are a number of overlapping ways that school, family and community leaders can and need to work together to create safe, caring school communities.

Some of the most important strategies include:

  1. Develop a shared vision and vocabulary.
    Norms and codes of conduct shape our life. It is not the exception for your school community. Understanding your school community’s values and needs and explicitly developing a shared vision and vocabulary is an important step that can powerfully and helpfully bring students, school personnel and parents or guardians together to consider what we need and want from one another. We can then translate these values and goals into codes of conduct for adults as well as students.
  2. Insure every student’s connection with at least one caring adult in school.
    Having at least one responsible and caring adult whom each student feel connected with is one of the most important steps that educators can take to promote safe schools. To learn about a strategy that your school can utilize to support this goal, click here
  3. Break the bully-victim-passive bystander cycle.
    One of the most important norms is related how we think about the role of the witness. When students and adults see trash in the halls or someone who is clearly upset or bully-victim behavior, what is our responsibility? One of the foundations for school safety and an effective citizenry is transforming schools from a community of passive bystanders (who do nothing and add to the problems) or a community of “upstanders” who responds responsibly to problems.

Video Multimedia—To learn about breaking the bully-victim-passive bystander cycle,
click Here.

Video Multimedia—Listen to Marvin Berkowitz (Sanford N. McDonnell Professor of Character Education, University of Missouri - St.Louis) talk the importance of being an upstander. Click here to view video.

  1. Provide social crisis preparedness practice and programs
    Some schools are beginning to use the Breaking the bully-victim-passive bystander program as a social crisis preparedness program. Crisis preparedness programs are one of many important school wide processes that importantly shape how safe people feel in school. All schools have developed crisis preparedness plans that anticipate physically dangerous moments (e.g. a fire or bomb scare). We suggest that schools need to recognize socially and emotionally as well as physically dangerous moments. To learn more, click here.

To learn about the BullyBust 2009 campaign and resources, click here.

  1. Recognize and deal with trauma in childhood and adolescents
    Recognizing and dealing with trauma of students is an essential strategy that promotes safe schools. Over 6.1 million children between the ages of 10-16 have suffered some sort of traumatic event that places them at risk for problems with relationships and school. Educators and even school counselors often fail to recognize when a student may have been traumatized. Trauma interferes with children’s ability to learn. Moreover, traumatized children often disrupt the classroom interfering with everyone’s ability to learn. Knowing how to recognize, support, and refer traumatized children will both foster the ability of the traumatized student to learn and improve the atmosphere of the entire class and school. It will also help to free teachers from dealing with discipline problems and allow them to return to teaching academic skills.

Video Multimedia—To learn about recognizing and dealing with trauma in childhood and adolescents, Click Here

  1. Address barriers to learning
    There are a range of additional ways that educators and parent leaders need to consider what is undermining student’s ability to learn. When we address barriers to learning, we are both protecting children and—by definition—promoting learning.


There are two levels of assessment that can support understanding about school safety: ‘comprehensive school climate assessments’ and more ‘targeted evaluations.’

We suggest that it is useful to initially evaluate school climate in a comprehensive manner. How safe students feel, for example, is colored and shaped by how we treat one another relationally, classroom management strategies, rules and norms as well as the nature of teaching and learning in the school.

When a school community learns that safety is an issue, it is often essential to "dig deeper" and understand what this means. Safety audits, for example, can help to pinpoint when and where bullying is occurring. Empowering students to become action researchers - who learn about the underlying factors to their own community's safety - is also a powerful way to assess physical violence and bullying issues. When students actively engage in uncovering the causes and solutions to bully-victim behavior, they help shape the direction of interventions in ways that have lasting success.


Relevant Readings (Download this List):

  • Devine, J. & Cohen, J. (2007) Making your school safe: Strategies to protect children and promote learning. New York: Teachers College Press
  • Goldstein, S. E., Young, A., & Boyd, C. (2008). Relational aggression at school: Associations with school safety and social climate. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 37(6), 641-654.
  • Gottfredson, G.D., & Gottfredson, D.C. (1989). School climate, academic performance, attendance, and dropout. Charleston County School District SC; Effective Schools Battery; Teacher Surveys.
  • Hoge, D. R., Smit, E. K., & Hanson, S. L. (1990). School experiences predicting changes in self-esteem of sixth- and seventh-grade students. Journal of Education Psychology, 82, 117-127.
  • Karcher, M.J. (2002). The cycle of violence and disconnection among rural middle school students: Teacher disconnection as a consequence of violence. Journal of School Violence, 1 (1), 35-51.
  • Kasen, S. N., Johnson, P. N., & Cohen, P. N. (1990). The impact of social emotional climate on student psychopathology. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Vol. 18 (2), 165-177.
  • Kosciw, Joseph G. and Elizabeth M. Diaz (2006). The 2005 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation's Schools.New York: GLSEN.
  • Kuperminic, G. P., Leadbeater, B. J., & Blatt, S. J. (2001). School social climate and individual differences in vulnerability to psychopathology among middle school students. Journal of School Psychology, 39, 141-159.
  • Kuperminic, G. P., Leadbeater, B. J., Emmons, C., & Blatt, S. J. (1997). Perceived school climate and difficulties in the social adjustment of middle school students. Applied Developmental Science, 1, 76-88.
  • LaRusso, M., Romer, D., & Selman, R. (2008). Teachers as builders of respectful school climates: Implications for adolescent drug use norms and depressive symptoms in high school. Journal of Youth & Adolescence, 37(4), 386-398.
  • Lleras, C. (2008). Hostile school climates: Explaining differential risk of student exposure to disruptive learning environments in high school. Journal of School Violence, 7(3), 105-135.
  • Ma, X., & Klinger, D. A. (2000). Hierarchical linear modeling of student and school effects on academic achievement. Canadian Journal of Education, 25, 41-55.
  • Meyer-Adams, N., & Conner, B. T. (2008). School violence: Bullying behaviors and the psychosocial school environment in middle schools. Children & Schools, 30(4), 211-221.
  • Payton, J., Weissberg, R.P., Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., Schlesinger, K.B., & Pachan, M. (2008). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
  • Ruus, V., Veisson, M., Leno, M., Ots, L., Pallas, L., Sara, E., et al. (2007). Students' well-being, coping, academic success, and school climate. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 35(7), 919-936.
  • Shochet, I. M., Dadds, M. R., Ham, D., & Montague, R. (2006). School connectedness is an underemphasized parameter in adolescent mental health: Results of a community prediction study. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 35, 170-179.
  • Sommer, B. (1985). What’s different about truants? A comparison study of eighth graders. Journal of Youth and adolescence, 14, 411-422.
  • Way, N., Reddy, R., & Rhodes, J. (2007). Students’ perceptions of school climate during the middle school years: Associations with trajectories of psychological and behavioral adjustment. American Journal of Community Psychology, 40(3), 194-213.
  • Yoneyama, S., & Rigby, K. (2006). Bully/victim students & classroom climate. Youth Studies Australia, 25(3), 34-41