Centering Racism to Examine School Safety for Black High School Students
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Centering Racism to Examine School Safety for Black High School Students


Research has well documented the ways that race and culture impact how youth experience and navigate school. Even so, frameworks and measures for assessing school climate and safety remain largely colorblind and have yet to operationalize the impact of institutional racism on Black youths’ feelings of school safety. This dissertation interrupts colorblind discourse of school climate and safety to address institutional racism in schools as a threat to Black youth. The first aim of this dissertation was to use a traditional single-item measure of school safety to highlight racial-ethnic disparities among 9th grade high school youths. The second aim was to show how applying a racial lens to assessing Black youths’ feelings of school safety can provide novel and valuable insight into relevant factors that influence the safety of Black youth in school—factors that would otherwise go unnoticed via traditional colorblind measures of school safety. Aims were fulfilled using a quantitative approach across two cross-sectional studies. Data for the studies came from the 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 high school administration of the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), an anonymous comprehensive survey of school climate and safety, student wellness, and youth resiliency. Study 1 used multilevel modeling to examine the relationship between race-ethnicity and feelings of school safety, as well as the moderating effect of different student-level and school-level factors. Student-level factors included sex, socioeconomic status, and different measures of social-emotional and physical experiences at school. School size and racial-ethnic diversity were examined as school-level factors. The analytic sample consisted of 337,484 youth of diverse racial-ethnic backgrounds (Black/African American= 4.1%, White=21.3%, Latino=47.2%, Asian=18.8%, Multi-Racial=6.0%, and Other Race-Ethnicity=2.5%). Study 2 used an analytic sample of only Black 9th grade students (n=877). Drawing from Edwards (2021) Intersectional Ecological Framework for Defining School Safety for Black Students, Study 2 used a racial lens to reconfigure items from different measures of the CHKS to capture some of the racialized experiences of Black youth in school. Restructured items were used in a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) examining Black Student Safety as a higher-order latent construct with four-factors: racial-cultural safety, academic safety, physical-environmental safety, and perceptions of school police. Multilevel modeling was then used to test the extent to which the new higher order construct predicted important outcomes for Black youth including perceptions of caring relationships at school, academic motivation, and goals and aspirations. Results from Study 1 showed that Black 9th grade students felt significantly less safe at school than their White peers. Further, the effect of race-ethnicity on feelings of school safety was significantly moderated by sex, violent victimization, and academic motivation. Results for the CFA in Study 2 confirmed the higher-order structure of Black Student Safety. As an aggregate construct Black Student Safety significantly predicted Black youths’ feelings of school safety. Examining its’ individual factors showed that racial-cultural, academic, and physical-environmental safety were stronger predictors of caring relationships, academic outcomes, and goals and aspirations for Black youth than the single-item measure of school safety. Together, findings from this dissertation emphasize a need for more comprehensive, multidimensional frameworks and instruments for assessing the safety of Black youth in schools.

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