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?