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Safer Schools: Efforts to Improve School Climate in Virginia

To better inform school safety and violence-prevention efforts, Virginia secondary schools sought to improve upon their comprehensive surveys of school climate.
Date Published
April 18, 2022

Violence in school is relatively rare, though community perceptions of violence in school may not reflect this fact. That being said, nearly 71% of all schools did report at least one case of violent crime during the 2017-2018 school year.[1] Administrators and communities are working hard to address the root causes of school violence to create safer schools. Time after time, studies have demonstrated that school climate is critical to school safety and violence prevention. These findings have resulted in the desire for many states to measure the characteristics of school climate with empirical data in order to better understand trends and improve the environment for their students and staff.

In a general sense, “school climate” refers to the character and quality of school life.[2] It considers students’ and school personnels’ relationships, goals, values, and norms. Previous research has pointed to a number of school climate features that have been associated with positive results for students: more authoritative school environments (specifically, strict but fair discipline and high academic expectations), as well as positive teacher-student relationships, higher academic achievement, better school attendance, and less bullying.[3]

Researchers from the University of Virginia have been working with the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services to develop rigorous survey scales to measure and assess school climate consistently over time. The surveys, which were administered over four alternating years to middle and high school stakeholders (students, parents, teachers, staff, and administrators), helped researchers better understand the relationship between the climate of a school and its overall safety. The researchers used the data to better inform stakeholders and to help formulate future surveys aimed at improving the Virginia educational system. 

In 2017, the researchers received support from NIJ to conduct a three-phase project that was a logical extension of their work. They interviewed and surveyed stakeholders about their past and possible future use of the previous research findings in order to:

  1. Investigate stakeholder understanding and use of school climate data.
  2. Improve the school climate reporting process (with the introduction of a new online system).
  3. Identify the longer-term associations between school climate characteristics, school safety, and equity in student outcomes.

Study Findings

In an effort to improve upon the school climate survey program in Virginia secondary schools, the research team examined survey responses and conducted interviews with school administrators, staff, and parents.

Regarding survey administration and access, they found that:

  • Rigorously developed and tested school climate measures from this project should be used in order to have reliable results. Any new items added to future surveys should also be tested rigorously.
  • Schools should continue with school climate reporting, as it is perceived as generating valuable information.
  • Invested stakeholders should be able to more easily access the testing results.
  • School climate data should continue to be used to measure and improve school safety and climate for students, teachers, and staff. This should be done across gender, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups for more equity in student academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes.
  • Surveys should be administered on an annual basis, rather than biennially.

The surveys indicated that in Virginia schools:

  • There is a relationship between more authoritative school climates and positive student outcomes, including student well-being, academic achievement, and school safety.
  • The role of school resource officers (SROs) in schools should be examined further. Decisions about the best use of SROs in individual schools should be informed through future surveys of students, parents, and staff.
  • School climate data should continue to be used to measure and improve school safety and climate for students, teachers, and staff. This should be done across gender, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups for more equity in student academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes.

Surveys Were Effective in Evaluating Changes

The primary implication from the longer-term survey studies is that there is consistency across time, indicating that the Virginia school surveys were effective in evaluating changes in school climate over time.

Encouragingly, the researchers’ longitudinal studies indicate that:

  • There were small, but statistically significant, improvements to school climate, including improved student support, educational expectations, and reduction in the prevalence of teasing and bullying.
  • High schools and middle schools that improved their disciplinary structure — strict but fair discipline and high academic expectations — reduced their suspension rates.
  • Efforts to make school rules fair and consistent with proportional consequences fared better than those that imposed zero tolerance practices.
  • Effective SROs can be important positive factors for school safety, including the willingness of students to report threats of violence.
  • School staff can have a profound effect on the perception of school climate, even putting aside the demographics of the school (that is, characteristics such as race, ethnicity, family incomes, school enrollment size, and location).

Recommendations for Survey Administration

The researchers caution that the administrators need to include stakeholders at all levels (state, district, and local) in the survey while paying close attention to the survey length so as not to overburden school administrations. If the surveys are given by the state, the state should follow up with schools so that they finish in a timely manner the and results are returned promptly. If states move to annual rather than biennial surveys, schools could have quicker access to the results, and would be better able to make data-informed decisions. Moreover, the visualization of trends should become easier if surveys are administered on an annual basis.

The large amounts of data provided by the surveys could certainly become overwhelming. Schools have indicated a desire for a simpler breakdown of the results. The researchers recommend that future reports incorporate two specific requests. They should: 1) provide detailed results so that schools can understand intra-school trends that span race, ethnicity, and gender, and 2) summarize the results for a larger audience so they can be easily understood.

Future Research and Limitations

While there is national interest for the school climate surveys to generate summary scores that can be used to rank or rate school quality, this could affect the quality of the survey results, as the status of the stakeholders’ schools could be positively or negatively impacted by the conclusions. Future work could incorporate a study of self-report validity, which has not yet been examined in this context.

The survey’s examination of equity across racial and ethnic categories is limited by the fact that it cannot accommodate all possible identities, and that some students (e.g. those of middle eastern and multi-racial backgrounds) do not fit neatly into any single category that is offered. Along a similar vein, future surveys should ask questions that distinguish sex from gender, as students expressed discomfort when asked to identify as male or female without another alternative. It should be noted that the concerns of LGBTQ students have not yet been assessed in Virginia schools. Further research on changes to demographic questions and how those changes affect the understanding of school safety and climate is certainly warranted.

About This Article

The work described in this article was supported by NIJ award number 2017-CK-BX-0007, awarded to Rector & Visitors of the University of Virginia.

This article is based on the grantee report “Improvement of School Climate Assessment in Virginia Secondary Schools” (pdf, 52 pages), by Dewey Cornell, Jennifer Maeng, Tim Konold, Francis Huang, Katrina Debnam, Kelly Edwards, Yuane Jia, Shelby Stohlman, Brittany Crowley, Caroline Crichlow-Ball, and Brooke Ruffa.

Date Published: April 18, 2022