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Voices: Building a safe school climate

Jamie Utt, a Denver-based educational diversity and inclusion consultant, says bullying must be tackled in a holistic way and that a healthy school climate is vital to student achievement.

Whenever I talk to students about the concept of identity-based bullying, they immediately get it. They understand the need to proactively address bullying in schools, and they recognize the need for intentional efforts in building a culture and climate of inclusiveness.
When I talk to most administrators and many teachers, though, there’s a disconnect, a skepticism. And I don’t blame them. For those tasked with educating our young people, there are about 25 chainsaws they are expected to juggle flawlessly: state standards, graduation rates, student behavior, state-mandated tests, district-mandated tests, college entrance rates, support for extra-curriculars, parent engagement, and on and on…

Above all, I hear the word “achievement.” And in many ways, I should. To quote a famous Bush-ism, we must ask, “Is our children learning?” We must ensure that students are prepared for the world after high school, and as such, we need a laser-like focus on standards and achievement.

But to focus on achievement doesn’t simply have to mean that we focus on tests, standards, and innovative reading, writing, and math instruction. We need to ensure that students have an environment where they are safe to learn so that our academic work is not in vain.

In their article “School Climate as a Factor in Student Adjustment and Achievement,” published in the Journal of Education and Psychological Consultation, Yale University’s Child Study Center researchers Norris M. Haynes, Christine Emmons, and Michael Ben-Avie define school climate as “the quality and consistence of interpersonal interactions within the school community that influence children’s cognitive, social, and psychological development.” School climate is essentially the sum total of interactions “among staff, between staff and students, among students, and between home and school.”

Their research notes that often schools misinterpret the effects of poor school adjustment and alienation on the part of students. Instead of recognizing that more needs to be done to make sure that every student has a safe space on campus, we as educators often blame external factors, such as cognitive ability, troubled home life, lack of positive role models, etc.

Of late, bullying is getting a lot of attention, so much so that 49 states have passed anti-bullying legislation that, among other things, hands down harsher consequences for those who exhibit bullying behaviors. What these approaches fail to address, though, is that bullying is not a general problem that can be solved with punitive consequences. Haynes, Emmons, and Ben-Avie even note that excessive punitive measures send the opposite message, telling students who actually need more support that they are not wanted or welcome in the school community.

Instead, we need to treat bullying is an issue of student inclusion, with specific student identities being targeted in each school community for very specific reasons. Research indicates that bullying behavior reflects the societal attitudes and behaviors toward specific groups of people. In turn, when our society tells its young people that certain people are “less than,” they pass that message on to their peers. Sometimes students are targeted for more surface-level identity markers (interest in particular activities or style of dress), but more often, students are being targeted for core aspects of their identity: their race, religion, (real or perceived) sexual orientation, wealth/class, physical or cognitive ability, weight/body image, or (real or perceived) citizenship status. This is why I use the term “identity-based bullying.” It describes why the bullying behavior is happening.

The beauty of holistic, comprehensive measures to improve school culture and climate is that it helps both the targets and perpetrators of bullying behavior. Those most likely to exhibit bullying behavior are students who are hurting, students who are troubled, students who feel lost. Thus, efforts to ensure that every students feel safe and included in their school environment (as called for by Haynes, Emmons, and Ben-Avie and by Sarah Gronna and Selvin Chin-Chance in “Effects of School Safety and School Characteristics on Grade 8 Achievement: A Multilevel Analysis” have the power to help both the bullied and those doing the bullying to find an inclusive space, thus aiding those who’ve experienced bullying to cope and helping others not to exhibit bullying behavior.

What’s clear, though, is that this cannot be the work of individual teachers, students, or parents. This must be a comprehensive effort that brings every stakeholder to the table: teachers, administrators, school staff, parents, and students.

So the question to educators who want to see their students achieve at the peak of their potential, then, is this: What are you doing to advocate for a culture of civility in your school community?

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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