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When a bully began targeting Monique Hayes’ fourth-grade son, social and emotional damage started rippling out into the whole family.
Her son stopped wanting to go to school. He threw fits and refused to get dressed. That meant Hayes couldn’t get her other two younger children ready for school either. All three kids started racking up tardy slips and absences. The whole family absorbed the oldest son’s stress and despair.
This all played out last year at Porter Elementary School, where Voice of San Diego documented serious safety concerns among multiple parents and a school counselor. But students not feeling safe at school is a problem that extends far beyond Porter.
San Diego Unified School District conducts surveys each year to find out just how safe its students are feeling in their schools. The results vary wildly across schools, according to a Voice of San Diego analysis of the data. At some elementary schools, as much as 100 percent of students feel safe. At others, the percentage dips to 50 percent and below.
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“The experience of safety affects everything from willingness to come to school and willingness to stay at school, but even more importantly it affects a student’s ability to engage and learn,” said David Osher, who studies school safety at the American Institutes for Research. Students who are stressed or afraid have trouble concentrating, remembering things and focusing, he said.
Students’ sense of safety can be influenced by many factors. Hayes’ son at Porter was bullied and also witnessed several fights between classmates.
At Juarez Elementary in Serra Mesa, just 62 percent of fifth-graders reported feeling safe. That’s significantly below the districtwide average of 77 percent for elementary students.
It’s not just other students that can impact a child’s sense of safety; teachers and administrators play a role as well. Nadia de los Rios has a daughter at Juarez, and she said the school’s former principal negatively contributed to her child’s sense of safety.
At one point, the principal pulled the daughter out of class and called her a “bad girl,” de los Rios said. Afterward, the daughter experienced extreme anxiety at just the thought of interacting with the principal. Her daughter was not alone, said de los Rios. Many children would be called into the principal’s office and then leave crying, she said.
Over the summer, the principal left the school, de los Rios said. She’s excited for the new school year and all the teachers, who she loves, at Juarez. But last year is one her daughter will never get back, she said.
“It was a very bad school year for us,” de los Rios said.
De los Rios tried to raise her concerns to district officials, but they offered no solutions, she said.
District spokeswoman Maureen Magee said she couldn’t comment on de los Rios’s experience due to privacy concerns.
District officials at San Diego Unified often say they like to use data as a flashlight, not a hammer.
But Magee was vague about how the district uses the survey results. First, she said district officials will work with schools to help them understand the results. But she also sewed doubt about the results’ significance.
“The district works with schools to help them understand their individual survey results based on participation levels, which vary widely school-by-school and year-by-year; administration of the survey; and other factors,” Magee wrote in a statement.
Magee did not offer any insight into how district officials work with schools to help them change their school cultures. She did, however, cite several districtwide policies – including the use of restorative justice, a curriculum known as No Place for Hate and anti-bullying initiatives – that are designed to create inclusive school climates.
Osher, the researcher, has worked with school districts to help them improve students’ sense of safety. He laid out several steps that school officials took in Cleveland to help improve the safety climate inside schools. First, he noted, they surveyed every school every year. Then they used the results to drill down on exactly which populations of students felt unsafe and create strategies to make them feel safer.
He also cited several districtwide policies, including the creation of mobile crisis teams, the reduction of in-school suspensions and the introduction of social-emotional learning curriculum.
It should be obvious, Osher noted, that making students feel safe in school can make all the difference in their education. Their working memory will improve, as will their ability to focus. But improving safety takes long-term commitment, he said.
“School teams need to be put in place to plan around the data. And they need to be constantly asking ‘What can we do to improve how students are experiencing conditions for learning,’” he said.