S3 Symposium 2013

The week before Thanksgiving is a busy time for many, as it heralds the start of the holiday season, and preparations for Thanksgiving gatherings are well under way. In Sacramento, however, the nearly 300 school and district staff, and school community stakeholders involved in California’s Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) program were busy for a very different reason – they were attending and participating in the 2013 S3 Symposium.

The first S3 Symposium took place in 2012 in Southern California, so the northern part of the state got to play host this time around. Representatives from all 58 S3 schools traveled to the Sheraton Grand in Sacramento for the event, that focused on idea-sharing and planning for sustainability. Here are some of the highlights:

Grantees participated in a poster session, featuring success stories from their schools’ programs.

Symposium attendees viewing posters from S3 school sites.


The posters were mounted for display at the evening welcome reception, and stayed up for the remainder of the Symposium, in order to allow participants plenty of time to peruse them for information and ideas.

S3 Grantee Posters from the 2013 Symposium.


In the plenary sessions, participants were treated to a range of activities, from energizing keynote speakers such as William Preble…

William Preble delivers the keynote address on the first full day of the Symposium.


…to an inspiring and engaging student panel from a local S3 school.

The student panel gets introduced by a moderator.


Several “master classes” (2.5 hour long sessions) were offered providing in-depth topic discussions and skills development…

Alison Adler leads a Master Class entitled “Moving all Staff Toward a Single School Culture.”


…along with over a dozen 75 minute workshops on school climate-related topics.

Participants engage in a discussion during a workshop.


Grantees were offered further opportunities to share their experiences, ideas, and questions in Ignite Talks and “Job-a-like” discussion sessions.

Participant shares out information from a Job-A-Like discussion with the full group.


WestEd, Duerr Evaluation, Center for Applied Research Solutions (CARS), and California Department of Education staff were on hand through it all, coordinating, organizing, and facilitating the Symposium from start to end.

Symposium staff meet to review the following day’s assignments.


Overall, those in attendance agreed that the event was a huge success.

Resources such as slides from presentations, photographs of posters, and other program materials will be made available shortly on the California S3 website.

Many thanks to all those who helped make this event such a great one, including our speakers, presenters, attendees, and event organizers.

Student Voice, School Climate, and the Local Control Funding Formula

In school after school participating in the Safe and Supportive School Projects in California, Louisiana, and South Carolina, we at WestEd have been facilitators and witnesses to the power that student voice brings to improving school climate and academic achievement. Listening to what students have to say can make a huge difference in the success of school improvement efforts. In a Commentary in EdSource, 11th-grade Oakland High School student Cindy Andrade emphasizes the importance of incorporating student voice as the State Board develops the regulations for the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and the need to include student engagement and school climate in the priorities required by the Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). Local school boards should also be listening to what their students, staff, and parents have to say about their schools through their Cal-SCHLS data and should directly involve them in developing an LCAP that effectively addresses local needs.

Here’s what Andrade writes about why this is important and what students want. She begins with a depressing summary of conditions in Oakland schools: overcrowding, outdated computers, damaged textbooks, and insufficient resources, AP classes, counselors, and college prep support to help students be successful.  “In other words,” she asks, “how can you expect us to succeed when we’re being set up to fail?”  She then stresses the importance of asking students themselves how LCFF money should be spent and calls for regulations that prioritize equity, meeting the needs of high-need students, and accountability – not only for achievement but for student engagement, school climate, and other LCAP priorities.

“Without real student and community input into how funding is distributed and spent, we will not be able to hold our districts and schools accountable to us. School districts across California must remember that they are working for us, the students, and that equity must be defined by what we need. After all, their local spending decisions affect our futures…. My peers and I want regulations that require school districts to spend more on the highest-need students; provide more services than they are already providing for these students, and show how this investment is working through increases in achievement and in all the other state priorities, including parent and student engagement and improving school climate. This should be the only option!”

School Climate and the Truancy Crisis

A report from the California Attorney General on the “crisis” of elementary school truancy and absenteeism highlights an important problem that has long-term negative effects in increasing the likelihood of student academic failure and dropping out of school, and that annually costs schools $1.5 billion in funding tied to attendance. The report calls for schools to become more aggressive and accountable about truancy, but the evidence is equally strong that creating more supportive and engaging school climates must be part of the solution to help address the underlying causes.

The Harris report calls for more school and family accountability, better systems of tracking attendance and truant students, more intense interventions by public officials including home visits after a student’s first unexcused absence, more involvement by social-service agencies, and a commitment, if necessary, by district attorneys to prosecute parents of chronically truant kids.

In a critique of the report based on the experience gained struggling with truancy while teaching for five years in a very low-income urban community, Ellie Herman emphasizes that truancy is just a symptom of the larger core problem of poverty and its affects on families. She calls it “delusional to think that ‘accountability’…will solve the problem of the large number of children in this city whose families are in crisis.” Every chronic truant “came from a home in chaos.” In a country that has the second-highest rate of child poverty in the developed world and a state that has cut services and education funding to the bone, we need to stop pretending that the truancy problem can be fixed if we “simply demand accountability,” and start having a “real and painful conversation,” about how to address the underlying problem.

One place to start is promoting schools that provide the developmental supports that help mitigate the effects of poverty, connect students with school, and engage them in learning. Steven Greenhut writes: “Truancy isn’t an imaginary problem, but it might be less severe if officials worried more about what happens once kids get into the classroom and less about keeping seats filled to keep the money flowing.” Underlying truancy, his article asserts, lies “bored kids and kids who have been failed by the system,” cutbacks in music and art programs, and persistent bullying and lack of safety. What we need, he concludes, is for more kids to want to go to school.

The role of school climate arguably is reflected in the increases in truancy rates that occur as children move through the school system. California Healthy Kids Survey data (2009-11 state report) reveals that the percentage of secondary students that skip school or cut class more than twice in the past twelve months rises from 8% in 7th grade to 29% in 11th. Across these same grades, school safety, connectedness, and supports — fundamental indicators of the quality of the school climate — all decline.

Another place to start to address the problem is to make better use of CHKS data to understand, raise awareness about, and address the needs of truants and the factors that influence chronic absenteeism. The survey asks students (1) how many times in the past 12 month they skipped school or cut classes; and (2) the reasons they miss school in the past 30 days. These reasons include illness, depression, concerns about safety, work and family obligations, and lack of interest in school. Schools can request a report that will provide only the survey results for the population that reports frequently skipping school.

Common Core State Standards, School Climate, and Social-Emotional Learning

By Svetlana Darche, Greg Austin, & Adam Voight

As California and the nation are adopting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), there is increasing recognition that success in meeting the standards will be closely intertwined with school climate and student social-emotional learning, adding to the value of the Healthy Kids Survey data for guiding CCSS implementation.

First, research shows that students’ academic attainment, the heart of the CCSS, is higher in the presence of positive conditions for learning.   That is, students perform better in safe, supportive, and engaging school climates. This point was demonstrated in WestEd’s recent study that showed dramatically more positive climates in schools that outperform academic predictions compared with other schools.

It is not enough to just improve curriculum and instruction to teach CCSS content.  We also need to create more positive environments that encourage students to attend school, ready them to learn, and motivate them to achieve.  Otherwise, the very purpose of the CCSS — to foster more college, career, and life readiness among our youth — will not be fulfilled.  Moreover, we will likely see a reoccurrence of the same phenomenon we have seen in past standardized tests:  immediate improvements in test scores followed by a leveling off.

Second, the rigor, depth of knowledge and performance tasks required for success in attaining the CCSS suggest that educators must provide not only an array of learning experiences that support deep understanding but also the conditions that support students’ development of many competencies that undergird academic attainment. Students will have to employ a number of specific social-emotional and other “noncognitive” skills in order to attain CCSS academic standards. The CCSS represent a set of grade-level competencies that all students are expected to attain in English Language Arts and mathematics. The standards are aligned with expectations for college and work. One standard explicitly calls for “rigorous content and application of knowledge through high-order skills,” and also included among the standards are critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving, and persistence.

To a larger degree than previous standards, the CCSS assessments include complex tasks that require problem-solving skills. Students will have to be able to take initiative, work collaboratively, communicate, and persist, just as they do to get good grades.  Students who lack these skills will get a “double whammy” — they will face tougher content and will have to do so without the requisite tools — like being asked to climb a higher mountain, but in flip flops instead of boots (they fail the climb and end up with blistered feet and bad memories, reluctant to take on the next hike).

Like academic performance, student social-emotional learning is greater in positive school climates.  Researchers, including those at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), have consistently found that while there are many strategies for teaching social-emotional competencies, they are not fully learned unless SEL instruction occurs within the context of a school climate that nurtures those skills and gives youth the opportunities to see them modeled by adults and to apply them in practice in the day-to-day world of the school.

The research underlying the CHKS indicates that school environments that focus on meeting the basic developmental needs of youth and providing the supports linked to resilience (e.g., caring adult relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for meaningful participation) help foster those social-emotional competencies and personal strengths that youth will need to succeed in the CCSS.  Thus the CHKS is an important tool for schools for determining their progress in fostering positive school climates and SEL that will be required to, in turn, foster success.  Moreover, the improvements that have been made to the CHKS this year — expanding the indicators of school climate and adding a supplemental Social and Emotional Health Module —have greatly enhanced its value to that end.

The CORE District Waiver, School Climate, and the Improvement of School Accountability Measures

As the school year begins, one of the most buzz-generating developments in the state is the US Department of Education’s award of the one-year NCLB waiver to the eight school districts partnering as the California Office to Reform Education or CORE and their plan to jointly implement the “radical idea” of a School Quality Improvement System (SQIS) and Index consisting of indicators of not only academic factors but also school climate/culture and student social-emotional health.  Using indicators from all three domains will constitute a major shift in how schools will be held accountable.  I’d like to think that this holistic approach to school improvement and accountability was an important factor in this award.

As the CORE proposal states: “The School Quality Improvement System is designed with the recognition that the federal expectations for meeting students’ needs have been too narrow for too long. LEA’s have too often been chasing success in a system that does not define success in a comprehensive or rigorous way….Our SQIS recognizes the importance of and values not only academic preparedness but also multiple measures of student success in students’ social-emotional development and the critical role of a school’s culture and climate…Success in the social-emotional and school culture and climate domains do not operate independent of success in the academic domain.”

The School Quality Improvement Index, forty percent of which will be based on the two nonacademic domains, will be used to measure and monitor success. It will also provide feedback on areas of strength and areas needing improvement in support of college- and career-readiness.

While the prospect of these eight districts, who serve about one-sixth of the state’s enrollment, setting up their own accountability system has generated controversy, the proposal provides a model for improving accountability systems for the state.  Other districts can emulate it as part of their Local Control and Accountability Plans, which require measuring school climate as a state priority. The CORE efforts will provide valuable information to guide these efforts.

Education Week blogger Michele McNeil has raised questions about the effect of a school-grading system that puts 40 percent of a school’s grade on nonacademic factors, how they will go about measuring them, and whether the system can correctly identify the highest-and lowest-performing schools.  The CORE districts already have available to them a system for providing the data in the California School Climate, Health, and Learning Surveys (Cal-SCHLS).  The value of the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) component in meeting these needs has been increased by several improvements in 2013-14, including an expanded supplementary School Climate Module and a new Social Emotional Health Module.

The current CHKS indicators, which have been used to create a School Climate Index, have further been found to clearly differentiate between low- and high-performing schools in the recent “Beating the Odds” study.  School climate was significantly more positive in schools that consistently performed better on STAR tests than would be predicted based on their student demographics, and it was significantly poorer in schools that consistently underperform.


The Racial School Climate Gap Between and Within Schools

This post was co-authored by Greg Austin and Adam Voight.

By most any measure of academic achievement, African American, American Indian, and Hispanic students in California overall perform significantly worse than their Asian and White peers. This racial/ethnic achievement gap (which we’ll simply refer to as a racial gap), persists even after socioeconomic conditions (poverty) are taken into consideration and continues to confound educational researchers and practitioners.  After decades of initiatives designed to redress this inequity, what are educators to do?

A series of recent empirical studies by WestEd has collectively shown not only the dimension of this achievement gap among California students but also that there is a related Racial School Climate Gap. Racial differences in students’ experience of school safety, supportiveness, and connectedness may help explain group differences in achievement.

One dimension of the problem is that African American and Hispanic students systematically attend schools that are lower performing, are less safe and supportive, and have lower levels of student connectedness than the schools attended by their White and Asian peers. This is part of the larger problem of inequalities in funding and resources among California schools. There is work to be done at the state and district levels to address disparities in achievement, resources, and learning conditions between schools.

The most novel finding, however, is that differences within schools may be even more important in explaining the achievement and climate gaps than differences between schools. Racial gaps in achievement and indicators of school climate within schools contributed more to both overall gaps among California students than the fact that White and Asian students attend different schools than African American and Hispanic students.

Consider the following illustration: Two students attend Middle School X. One is Hispanic and one is White. Based on this finding, one would expect that the Hispanic student would have lower test scores and grades and would report lower levels of perceived safety, support, and connectedness, despite access to the same facilities, resources, administration, teachers, and staff.

This was, in fact, a general finding across all California schools. African-American and Hispanic students have less positive learning conditions and outcomes than their White and Asian peers within the same school. Something is happening to foster this inequality internally.  It is not exactly clear why this is so, but the implication is that school administrators and staff are in a position to remedy this gap through their building-level policies and practices.

As we have written in previous blogs, one reason why more safe, developmentally supportive, and engaging school conditions may promote academic achievement is that they serve as protective factors that reduce the risk factors in the world outside the school.  These supports may be especially important in helping to mitigate the many out-of-school barriers to learning that racial/ethnic minority students face because of their higher rates of poverty.

These findings suggest that reducing racial disparities in students’ experience of school climate—both between and within schools—may result in reduced racial disparities in achievement. To truly support this causal argument requires further research. Absent this empirical evidence, however, there is still a clear conceptual argument that improving school climate for African American, Hispanic, and American Indian students may be an engine for reducing the achievement gap.  Moreover, that the disparities were greater within than between schools further suggests that most of the work needs to happen at the level of the policies and practices of individual schools.  This needs to begin with learning more about how and why disadvantaged minorities do not have the same school experience as their peers within the same campus.

Another implication of these findings for closing the achievement gap is the importance of schools regularly assessing and monitoring their school climate as experienced by different racial/ethnic groups, using such tools as the Cal-SCHLS surveys.

For more information on this and related topics, take a look at following California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) Factsheets (in particular #13):

And for analyses on this topic from the perspective of school staff, you may also want to check out the following California School Climate Survey (CSCS) Factsheets:

Restorative Justice in Oakland Unified School District

This week, we have another guest post, submitted by David Yusem and Yari Ojeda Sandel who work on Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice Program. Read on to learn more about the powerful impact of this program in Oakland schools and on students.

At Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), we are implementing whole school Restorative Justice (RJ) at many of our schools to build community, repair harm, and provide personalized support for a student re-entering a school after a prolonged absence. Restorative Justice is a program that focuses on building and strengthening relationships. As such, RJ frames wrong-doing or crime as a violation of relationships and seeks to repair any damage that may have been inflicted on relationships by those types of actions.

One recent story stands out as an illustrative example of the power of RJ in transforming conflict.

Two girls, once friends, got into a fight at one of our middle schools. It was violent, and took place in front of several members of the school including the Assistant Principal. The two girls were suspended. The school community grappled with rumors circulating about the circle of friends around the two girls. The situation worsened to the point that there were six girls who wanted to fight each other – all who used to be friends.

The Power of Circles

The RJ Coordinator on site brought the six girls into a circle to temper the fear and anger boiling up amongst them so that they could make it to Friday, when the two girls were to return from suspension. Drawn from the practices of native cultures, circles are inclusive spaces that create opportunities for participants to build community, have equitable dialogue, respond to harm or conflict, hold offenders accountable by allowing them to understand the impact of their actions on others, and repair the damage of that harm to the extent possible. Participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking as they pass around a “talking piece” (a designated object) that allows them to share. Every circle begins with an “opening,” in which the facilitator or leader shares a reading such as a poem or a quote that signals the creation of a separate space from the rest of the day. The opening is followed by the development of shared guidelines and norms and the identification of shared values. After the circle dialogue takes place, there is a “closing” and participants consciously leave the circle and return to their previous environment.

Throughout the week, the rumors continued and other students started to become involved. The girls sought support from teachers to help them manage their anger. The community was tense; the girls were distracted from academics and afraid. Tension continued to build until the two suspended students arrived back on campus. Three of the other girls came to school in sweats that day, ready to fight. The other three girls were afraid to go anywhere on the campus. In partnership with two teachers, the RJ Coordinator provided safe spaces for the groups to remain apart while she met with the two central girls, working individually with each first, then together.

Accountability and Healing

Due to her efforts, the girls were able to understand the impact of their actions, not just on themselves, but upon their friends, the Assistant Principal, and the school community. They created a plan to repair the harm they caused. They wanted to plan a circle to bring their friends together to discuss the incident. They designed the questions that would be asked and met with their friends separately to discuss the process. Ultimately all the girls affected, including the suspended students, participated in a circle to repair the harm among their friends. By the end, they all felt closer and could laugh again. Together, they planned and facilitated another larger circle to create a feeling a safety on campus again. A teacher involved in this process wrote the following to the RJ Coordinator:

“The girls did an INCREDIBLE job today running the follow up circle. I was so impressed, not only with the maturity and honesty of the girls, but with the process itself. After today, I am even more of a believer in RJ. Thank you so much for empowering our students to take accountability for their actions and value the importance of honesty and integrity.”

The Numbers

While an evaluation of the OUSD RJ program is ongoing, discipline data from OUSD schools seem to indicate that RJ is having an impact on schools and improving school climates:

Ralph J. Bunche Continuation School reduced its overall suspension rate from 12% in 2011 to 8% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 19% in 2011 to just 7% in 2012.  Bunche eliminated disproportionality in African American male suspensions (8% overall, 7% African American males), and cut its overall suspension rate by more than half.

McClymonds High School reduced its overall suspension rate from 25% in 2011 to 15% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 34% in 2011 to just 17% in 2012. McClymonds eliminated disproportionality in African American male suspensions (15% overall, 17% African American males), and cut its African American male suspension rate by half.

West Oakland Middle School reduced its overall suspension rate from 49% in 2011 to just 13% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 68% in 2011 to just 13% in 2012. West Oakland Middle School reduced its overall suspension rate by more than two-thirds, and reduced its African American male suspension rate by almost as much.

For more information, take a look at the Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice program’s website or contact David Yusem, Program Manager, at david.yusem@ousd.k12.ca.us.

Madera High School, the S3 Grant, and Peer Counseling

This week, we have a guest post written by Jennifer Gaviola of Madera High School, a Safe and Supportive Schools (S3) grantee in Madera, CA, about their Peer Counseling Program. Research has shown that peer helping programs (either peer-led or peer-assisted) can have beneficial outcomes for participating students, whether they are delivering services or receiving them. These programs have been found to have a positive impact on students’ connectedness to school and peers, feelings of competency and self-efficacy, grades and academic achievement, and prosocial attitudes and behaviors (for more on the research, look here, here, and here).

That being said, it’s always helpful to get the perspective of those who are actually implementing the programs and doing the work. Here’s Madera High’s story:

A few short years ago we had a wish list of amazing ideas to make Madera High an even better place for all students. Our California Healthy Kids Survey data indicated that we had students who felt that they didn’t have anyone to turn to at school, that they needed help with problem solving, and that they wanted to feel like someone at school cared about them.

In response, our wish list was full of ideas and programs to foster the social and emotional connection of students to the school, an absolutely essential piece to the puzzle we call high school: peer counseling, Link Crew, positive culture and climate, and Olweus for bullying prevention. Unfortunately with the state of the educational budget in California, adding such programs seemed like something for a fairy tale. Even though research tells us that a positive, safe environment where all kids feel connected and successful directly impacts test scores and academic achievement, how would we ever get our wishes granted when every budget seemed so pinched?

Grant(ed) was the key. The Safe and Supportive School Grant was the first star, the fairy god-grant we were waiting for. Madera High School received this grant during the 2011-12 school year and since then we have been able to implement all of our “wish list” ideas.

One of the first programs we established through our grant was Peer Counseling.  We utilize Ira Sachnoff’s Peer Mediation and Conflict Resolution Training. This past August, we created a class, found a fantastic teacher who relates to students and has an extraordinary desire to impact their lives, and then we got to work.

The first semester was spent training students in the following areas: paraphrasing, values, decision making, active listening, non-verbal communication, and much more. By second semester, our 24 students were well-equipped to begin their quest to help students help themselves. With the help of these young leaders of tomorrow, we have begun a huge cultural shift at our school that empowers students to solve problems. They are helping us achieve our goals that all students feel connected to school and never feel they are alone. Our peer counselors are leaders dedicated to our mission of making a difference in the lives of all students at Madera High School. They are just one of our many S3 shining stars changing the school culture, one student at a time.

Poverty, Grit, and School Success

In an earlier post, we touched on the debate over the relationship between poverty, school failure, and school climate.  More fuel to this debate is provided by Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity and the Power of Character.  Tough compellingly lays out how much poverty adversely affects learning and offers us a roadmap to school success in high-poverty communities that leads directly through developmentally-supportive school climates.

Drawing on new neuroscientific and psychological research, he argues that the most severe consequences of poverty on learning are psychological and behavioral rather than cognitive.  Childhood traumas, particularly those associated with poverty, overwhelm the ability of developing bodies and minds to manage stress and block the capacity to learn.  One way this occurs is by undermining a young person’s ability to gain noncognitive, character-building qualities such as grit — perseverance and passion for long-term goals — resilience, self-control, and self-confidence.  These noncognitive, character-related qualities, he emphasizes, may be as important — even more important — than cognitive skills in academic performance and how a young person’s life turns out.

The good news, Tough reports, is that nurturing relationships with parents or other caregivers engenders resilience in children, which insulates them from (mitigates) some of the worst effects of a harsh environment.  Moreover, the grit-related, noncognitive skills can be taught, practiced, learned, and improved, even into adulthood.

In our search for strategies to turn around low-performing, high-poverty schools, Tough directs us to pay more attention to creating developmentally-supportive learning conditions that foster both noncognitive skills and academic achievement.  His emphasis on grit has contributed to a surge in interest in this quality.  But his broader message is a familiar one backed by a wealth of research:  the power of resilience to foster positive academic, social, emotional, and physical outcomes even among youth growing up in the harshest environments.  He adds his voice to others who have shown that the road to student success lies in creating school conditions that encourage students to strive, that help them develop a strong sense of self-efficacy and autonomy, that provide a network of caring and support that fosters a sense of belonging, and that, as a result, involve and engage them in learning.

And I’ll add more good news:  through the Cal-SCHLS surveys, schools can measure whether they have in place developmentally supportive school climate conditions that foster resilience and these gritty character-building qualities. The Resilience and Youth Development Module measures many of the student characteristics that Tough endorses.

What’s Needed to Improve Student Safety?

Cal-SCHLS data reveals that about 40% of middle and high school students in California do not feel safe at school, and only one-third of high school staff think their schools are safe for students.  In a recent California Endowment survey of 1,200 voters, there was strong public support for improving school safety and for expanding school-based prevention programs, counseling, and mental health services rather than law enforcement and security measures.  Unfortunately, past years have seen a retrenchment in such support services, and participation in the Cal-SCHLS surveys — the state’s main source of local data to gauge, monitor, and hold schools accountable for safe conditions — is declining.



In the survey of California voters, two-thirds thought it was important for government leaders to improve safety in California schools, with a strong preference for strategies emphasizing mental health services and emergency response training for school staff.  Given a series of policy options, 84% supported increasing the number of trained counselors in schools (55% strongly supported), compared to only 50% who supported putting armed police officers in every school (23% strongly). Just over 90% supported training teachers in conflict resolution techniques and providing mental “first aid” training to school staff so they can recognize the signs of mental illness in young people (64% strongly in both cases).

When asked to compare policy options directly, voters back hiring a school counselor over a police officer, by a margin of two to one (67% to 26%) and improving mental health services over installing more security cameras and metal detectors, also by a margin of two to one (66% to 27%).

In related findings, 88% of voters agreed that those officers assigned to schools should get special training in youth development, so they better understand teens and can work more effectively with students and teachers. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents (65%) agreed that too many guards and gates on campus risks creating a tense, fortress-like environment that can be detrimental to a school’s educational mission.

In other words, California voters see the road map to improving safety in California schools as lying in prevention and the promotion of mental health and emotional well-being among students, rather than law enforcement and security measures.  In this instance, public opinion is markedly aligned with what research shows is needed and works — but this is not what is occurring in our schools.

We have been witnessing a pronounced decline in prevention, counseling, and mental health supports. In an EdSource survey of the 30 largest districts, 22 of them cut back on their counseling staff between 2007–08 and 2011–12, with an overall drop in the number of counselors of 20 percent.  According to the American School Counselors Association, California currently ranks worst in the nation at providing access to school counselors, with only one counselor per 1,014 students—four times worse than the recommended standard of one per 250.  Worse, it is estimated that there are only about 4,000-4,500 school psychologists for the state’s 6.2 million public school students.

The sorry state of safety-related school services is reflected in the Cal-SCHLS staff data.  In 2008/10, only one-fifth to one-quarter strongly agreed that their school had adequate counseling and support for students; sufficient resources to create a safe campus; and effective support services for students needing help for violence, substance use, and other problems.  In another EdSource survey of 315 districts, two-thirds of the school officials in charge of discipline said that the greatest need was for counselors and other support staff to address discipline problems.

Three factors have contributed to this situation:  recession-related budget cuts, the pressure to improve test scores, and the ending of the federal Safe and Drug Free Schools Program (Title IV), which was the primary source of funding for violence prevention.

The ending of Title IV had another adverse consequence for school safety efforts:  It removed the California Department of Education requirement that schools administer the California Health Kids Survey and California School Climate Survey of staff every two years.  These Cal-SCHLS surveys are the state’s main source of data from students and staff at the local, county, and state level about school safety, violence, and harassment, and about the services and practices in schools to address these problems. They also provide data on whether schools are fostering developmentally supportive environments that promote personal resilience and school connectedness, which have been found to reduce violence and promote the sense of safety and mental well-being that youth need to learn and thrive.   Since the Title IV requirement ended, we have seen a 35% decline in survey participation.

Current law requires every school to have a comprehensive safety plan that is updated annually, and state senator Ted Lieu has introduced Senate Bill 49 to give the state superintendent of public instruction the authority to hold back funding for a district or county office of education that has not “substantially complied” with this law.   Whether this will stem the receding tide in prevention remains to be seen.  This also begs the question:  How can we expect schools to develop comprehensive school safety plans and to effectively implement prevention programs without requiring data to document current conditions, guide those efforts, and hold schools accountable?