TAMPA — Slightly more than half of middle and high school students in Hillsborough County feel safe at school, according to survey results recently released by the school district.
Of the nearly 18,000 high schoolers surveyed this spring, 56 percent agreed with the statement, “I feel safe at school.” Twenty-nine percent said they were not sure and 15 percent disagreed. Of the middle schoolers surveyed, 54 percent said they felt safe at school, 32 percent were not sure and 15 percent disagreed.
A closer look at the results shows that at the middle school level, the schools where students felt safest are some of those with the highest academic performance.
“A sense of security is necessary for learning at high levels,” said Bill Bond, a school safety specialist for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “A sense of security is necessary to focus.”
The three middle schools where students felt safest are Wilson, Randall and Farnell middles, which earned A grades from the Florida Department of Education in 2013.
At the other end of the spectrum, the middle schools where students feel least safe received low marks last year from the department.
“A supportive environment for students encourages student achievement,” school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty said, adding that principals will dig deeper into their schools’ survey results to set goals for next school year.
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At McLane Middle, a D school, just 23 percent of the students reported they felt safe at school. And at Jennings Middle, an F school in Seffner, 24 percent felt safe.
In March, a student at Jennings was charged with aggravated battery after stabbing another student on campus with a steak knife.
The high school results are more of a mixed bag. All district high schools were rated a C or better by the Education Department in 2013.
Hillsborough’s safest high schools — according to students — are Newsome, Steinbrenner and Plant. The high schools where students felt the least safe are King, Blake and East Bay. Those six are all A or B schools.
School board member Candy Olson said it’s concerning that some children don’t feel safe at school.
“I think we have to ask the questions and I think we have to be very honest about the challenges,” she said. “I wish I had an answer. The thing that gives me hope is I know a lot of schools take this very seriously and really make an effort to figure out what they can do better. I think every school needs to use it. I know staff has already been meeting.”
The districtwide response, which includes elementary schools, was more positive, with 69 percent of Hillsborough students agreeing they feel safe at school.
The survey also shows that most students believe they can get help at school if they need it, that their schools do not tolerate bullying and that school is helping them prepare for the future.
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Bond, the school safety specialist, said the middle and high school responses to the safety question might sound disturbing, but the district should do a little more digging to see why some students might not believe they are completely safe at school before making any changes.
“What you’ve got right now says you’ve got an issue,” he said. “There could be a lot of following up to see what’s causing that issue.”
There is a huge difference between being safe and feeling safe, Bond said.
“Many things that help you stay safe make you unsafe,” he said. “Bars on the window — that’s strictly for safety. It makes you feel unsafe.”
In recent years, the school district has made security more of a priority — teaching and learning is conducted under the watchful eye of video cameras monitored by security staff, behind locked doors that are buzzed open only when visitors pass inspection, surrounded by tight fences and some 2,500 alarm systems across hundreds of school buildings.
Each Hillsborough middle and high school has its own armed resource officer or deputy.
Bond says an officer dressed in a full law enforcement uniform might help keep students safe, but it also might intimidate them.
One solution would be to have the school officers wear uniforms that more closely resemble civilian clothes than military outfits, perhaps a collared shirt with a law enforcement logo, Bond said.
It’s a measure Bond took in 1997 as principal of a school in Kentucky after a student shot seven classmates.
“Hard uniforms in the hall made students feel unsafe even though they were more secure,” he said.
Other highlights from the student climate survey include:
♦ 70 percent of high schoolers and 74 percent of middle schoolers said there is an adult they can talk to at school if they have a problem.
♦ 61 percent of high schoolers and 59 percent of middle schoolers believe their teachers treat them fairly.
♦ 29 percent of high schoolers and 26 percent of middle schoolers say students at their school treat others with respect.
♦ 40 percent of high schoolers and 43 percent of middle schoolers know how to report sexually inappropriate behavior, a topic that was included in the survey for the first time this year.