The First
Step is

How Safe and Supportive School Environments Deter School Violence


The First
Step is

How Safe and Supportive School Environments Deter School Violence



of the most important measures for preventing violent incidents in schools is one that is often overlooked — creating a safe and supportive school environment through a focus on improving social and emotional health. In 2014, The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, released three guiding principles for improving school climate and safety: create a positive climate and focus on prevention; develop clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences; and ensure fairness, equity and continuous improvement. To underscore just how integral social-emotional learning (SEL) is to school safety, the California Department of Education in February of this year also released a set of guiding principles for teaching social and emotional skills that reflect these same categories.

“People think of climate and social-emotional learning as long-term prevention, but I would argue that it’s actually the strongest form of weapon reduction and violence intervention that we have,” said Ron Avi Astor, an expert in school safety and professor of school behavioral health at the University of Southern California. “Students know about this stuff earlier and experience it on school grounds on a regular basis. Unless you have a positive, caring setting that’s supportive, they won’t come forth and you won’t know about it.”

Social and emotional learning teaches people to recognize, understand and manage their emotions. A focus on social-emotional learning can lead students to establish and maintain better relationships with their peers and with adults, as well as help them to make responsible decisions. Integrating a focus on SEL throughout a district and in individual schools has been proven to not only reduce bullying and other violent incidents, but also to improve academic outcomes.

“Meta-analyses of social-emotional learning programs find a huge difference in outcomes from those students who have received the interventions versus those that have not,” said Patricia E. Campie, principal researcher at the American Institutes for Research. “There is a more than 25 percent difference in terms of social competence and more than 10 percent difference in terms of academic achievement.”

Assessing School Climate

Creating safe and supportive school environments requires stakeholders such as school board members, superintendents, principals and teachers to identify improving school climate as a priority. “First and foremost, the leadership needs to see school climate as part of the central mission,” said Astor, who also co-authored the Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America, released in response to the Parkland shooting. “It’s not competing with academics, it’s not instead of academics — it’s equal to academics.”

School climate encompasses everything, from how welcoming is the school, to the school’s approach to discipline and behavior, to how well it reflects the different cultures and backgrounds of its students and the connectedness that those students feel both to the school itself and to the adults in the school. The first step in creating a safe and supportive school environment is measuring the current state that all California schools have at their disposal: the California Healthy Kids Survey. The CHKS, funded by the California Department of Education, is a comprehensive survey of resiliency, protective factors, risk behaviors and school climate available to all California local educational agencies. It provides LEAs with a standard tool that promotes the collection of uniform data and can be disaggregated to the district, school and even grade level.

Emphasizing the importance of evaluating current school climate, the School Climate priority area of the Local Control and Accountability Plan requires LEAs to provide “local measures, including surveys of pupils, parents and teachers on the sense of safety and school connectedness.” Districts and schools can use data collected from the CHKS to identify areas in which students are struggling in order to direct resources and supports. There are numerous other tools and surveys available in addition to the CHKS, many of which allow for family and community input. For example, Chula Vista Unified School District uses a tool called Thought Exchange, a web-based survey program. “We get parent, community, teacher and other school staff input on how things are going — what is going well, what needs improvement and what might possibly be implemented,” said Chula Vista USD Board President Leslie Bunker. “It is a great tool for LCAP prioritization and engagement.”

Creating a Positive School Climate

Creating a positive school climate requires a “systems change” approach to promoting student academic, social and emotional learning. The use of evidence-based prevention strategies, such as tiered supports, to promote positive student behavior should be a priority. SEL should be integrated across all school- and districtwide systemic platforms such as vision statements, strategic plans, budgetary decisions, staffing, professional learning and development, policies and regulations, curricular adoption criteria, instructional practices and instructional quality assessments.

At Chula Vista USD, SEL is woven into the curriculum and throughout the school day beginning in transitional kindergarten. “You need to have specific social-emotional programs or processes that can be used on a daily basis in order to create a safe environment,” said CVUSD Superintendent Francisco Escobedo. “Sanford Harmony and 2nd Step are two programs that our schools use. When the board crafted the LCAP, LCAP Goal #1 states: ‘Improve and increase access to services that support social-emotional learning, physical wellness and school success.’ Since the LCAP, it has truly become a high priority and primary focus.”

“People think of climate and social-emotional learning as long-term prevention, but I would argue that it’s actually the strongest form of weapon reduction and violence intervention that we have.”

Ron Avi Astor, an expert in school safety and professor of school behavioral health at the University of Southern California

“People think of climate and social-emotional learning as long-term prevention, but I would argue that it’s actually the strongest form of weapon reduction and violence intervention that we have.”

Ron Avi Astor, an expert in school safety and professor of school behavioral health at the University of Southern California

“This focus on safe and supportive school environment has made a very positive impact on students and their achievement,” said CVUSD trustee Bunker. “Students are scoring better on tests and there is less conflict happening. At the classroom level, you can see that if kids are not constantly in turmoil, they are able to focus more on academics. Plus teachers aren’t having to spend extra time negotiating issues between students — the students are learning to do that themselves.”

Staff from the Orange County Department of Education were part of the planning team that developed California’s guiding principles for social-emotional learning. OCDE has found that an emphasis on professional development has helped to further SEL and the contributions it makes toward a safe and supportive school environment. “School safety and professional development have been a focus of our department for more than 15 years, starting with our early work promoting Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports,” said County Superintendent Al Mijares. “In more recent years, we have added trainings on restorative practices, mindfulness, social-emotional learning and other proven strategies for enhancing school climates.”

“California schools are responsible for ensuring that all of California’s diverse students have access to a wide range of content, and the evidence indicates that attending to students’ social and emotional needs can help facilitate their access and success,” said CSBA Senior Director of Policy and Programs Julie Maxwell-Jolly. “In addition, attention to SEL helps educators focus on the rich diversity of cultural, linguistic and social backgrounds of the state’s students and the attendant variation in their needs. Finally, attention to SEL means that educators have a more constant awareness of the state of mind of their students and can address students’ struggles and highlight their strengths in an ongoing manner, all of which contribute to a healthier and safer school climate.”

Setting Clear and Consistent Expectations for Students

All students must have opportunities to build SEL skills and receive an educational experience that is personalized, culturally relevant and responsive, and intentionally addresses racism and implicit bias. This includes having a diverse and inclusive leadership team, providing students with opportunities to practice social and emotional skills throughout the school day, and instituting discipline polices that promote social and emotional growth. The guiding principles for improving school climate and safety emphasize the need for clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences for every student. A school-wide — or districtwide — discipline policy that sets high expectations for student behavior and lays out clear and consistent consequences for misbehavior is a critical component of this principle.

This does not mean punitive measures, but rather a focus on an instructional approach to discipline that uses interventions to make behavioral expectations clear and help students develop new behavior skills and positive strategies to avoid conflict, redirect energy and refocus on learning.

Campie of the American Institutes for Research agrees that behavioral intervention is more effective than punitive consequences. “Research shows that cognitive behavioral interventions, across cultures, are universally effective for anyone from 10-year-olds to adults,” she explained. “CBI is a way to help an individual slow down their decision-making process in order to then behave in a way that is more appropriate for the context, the situation and the people involved.”

Partnering with families and community helps to build understanding between school and home, promote transparency and fairness for all students and improve school climate. “It takes a village” is a common mantra in child-rearing, and that thinking is reflected in creating school environments that are supportive of every child. Parent input should be considered when creating new policies and those policies should be communicated clearly. Student and family needs outside of what the school can provide can be addressed through partnerships with community-based organizations and other local stakeholders.

Equity and Continuous Improvement

Schools, districts and county offices of education should direct resources to training staff so they can apply SEL and school discipline policies fairly and equitably. It is also important to continuously evaluate learning and discipline practices to ensure they are achieving the desired outcomes. Evaluation can include data points and gathering feedback from families, students, teachers and other school staff. As mentioned earlier in this article, the California Healthy Kids Survey is a free tool available to every school in the state and can be used over multiple years to measure how student attitudes and perceptions are changing.

Chula Vista USD Superintendent Escobedo cites how his district’s schools work together with their county office to obtain data. “We’ve been working with our county and through our SELPA [Special Education Local Plan Area] since 2013 to capture the county’s total suspensions,” he said, “and whether it is a violent incident or non-violent or if weapons or drugs were involved. In 2013, the district had 331 suspensions; in 2016–17, that went down to 256. We are happy to see that decrease and would like to see that go down even further.”

What’s Ahead

California will be the subject of a groundbreaking study on school safety in upcoming years. Working with Virginia Tech and Public Counsel, the American Institutes for Research will examine school-based risk and protective factors and readiness for school safety reforms among students, parents, schools and communities in three school districts in California: one rural, one urban and one large county.

“What we want to understand is how variations within community crime rates, in school practices and in concentrated disadvantage — which is a way to understand economic and social disparities using census data — impact the readiness of a school district to take a comprehensive approach to school safety,” explained AIR’s Campie, who will lead the five-year study. This magazine and CSBA’s newsletter, California School News, will provide our members with periodic updates of this study.

Kimberly Sellery is managing editor for California Schools.


CSBA briefs on creating safe and supportive schools:

CSBA sample board policies: BP 5137 – Positive School Climate; BP 0000 – Vision; BP 0100 – Philosophy; BP 0200 – Goals for the District

AIR school safety toolkit:

Call for Action to Prevent Gun Violence in the United States of America:

National Association of School Psychologists: Framework for Safe and Successful Schools: