Creating Safe and Supportive Schools: 5 Promising Areas for Policy Change

Alexis Etow & Cesar De La Vega

A positive school climate is the cornerstone of a healthy, safe, and nurturing learning environment. To improve school climate, we need to meaningfully examine and address policies and practices that harm or alienate young people or that do not go far enough to advance health equity. This blog post highlights 5 areas in which promising legal and policy levers can transform school climate and promote healthy development of the whole child.

When it comes to policy change, school districts are uniquely positioned to effectively advance students’ health as well as their academic learning. In the United States, education policy originates at the federal level, but the specifics of these policies as well as their implementation and enforcement are largely left to state and local agencies. As a result, local jurisdictions and school districts have a number of policy opportunities to improve the climate of their schools.

1. Physical Environment

Given that more than one-sixth of the US population — including 50 million children and another 6 million adults — spends the majority of their weekdays in public K-12 schools, the physical environment in which they work, learn, and play is critical to creating a positive school climate that supports learning and promotes health.

Too many schools — particularly schools in low-income communities and communities of color — lack the support and resources necessary to provide students and teachers with adequate facilities that are healthy, safe, and conducive to learning and teaching. It’s not surprising that schools with deteriorating infrastructure have higher rates of chronic absenteeism, decreased academic performance, lower morale, and poorer health conditions. These negative impacts are not limited to students; a poor physical environment in a school can breed teacher attrition and strained student-teacher relationships.

In 2016, Detroit public school teachers’ frustrations with their schools’ rodent infestation, mold, damaged roofs, and broken glass came to a head when they staged organized sick-outs. While some did not agree with the method of protest, the teachers’ anger about “third world“ school conditions was understandable and brought national attention to an issue that is tragically commonplace in school districts throughout the country.

To most effectively respond to this crisis, we must understand the policy levers that can be used. First, although federal, state, and district regulations require schools to maintain a safe physical environment, federal and state agencies have not consistently evaluated conditions nor have district-level staff appropriately enforced standards. As a result, many of the policies and practices governing public school infrastructure and safety are outdated and underdeveloped.

Second, policies that determine school funding and financing are deeply rooted in historical inequities like neighborhood segregation. Although schools are funded through a mixture of federal, state, and local money, capital investment in physical infrastructure relies almost entirely on funding from local taxpayers. Thus, the quality and upkeep of school facilities are directly linked to and entirely dependent on the wealth of the community.

Going forward, we must demand that federal regulators, state departments of education, and school districts to do a better job of evaluation and enforcement. Federal and state laws can be strengthened to require periodic assessments of school facilities in order to improve our understanding of current conditions. The last comprehensive federal assessment of school facilities was conducted by the US Government Accounting Office more than 20 years ago. The 1995 report found that the indoor air quality at 15,000 schools was deemed unsatisfactory. At the district level, school facility planners and staff must be proactive in ensuring compliance with environmental safety standards.

As a nation, we must also insist on leveling the playing field when it comes to public school funding and financing. States have an important role to play in ensuring that resources are equitably distributed to the highest-poverty school districts. School districts should examine their current funding structures and prevent the creation or expansion of inequitable funding mechanisms such as attendance-based financing, which disproportionately hurts high-poverty schools. At the same time, it is critical that we explore more creative and equitable funding strategies, whether it’s expanding innovative opportunities within existing laws or leveraging new partnerships and funding streams at the federal, state, and local levels.

To learn more about public school infrastructure and how to improve school health conditions, check out the Center for Green Schools’ resources.

2. Psychosocial Environment

Another important factor in a positive school climate is a healthy interpersonal or psychosocial environment — one that fosters school connectedness and healthy relationships between students, adults, and peers. Students who feel connected to their school are more likely to succeed academically, have better attendance, and are less likely to engage in risky or violent behavior. School staff members play a critical role in building school connectedness, which has been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a critical protective health factor for children. Positive student-adult relationships provide children with a sense of safety, cultivate their self-esteem, and build their resilience.

Overly punitive discipline policies and practices — such as out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, and corporal punishment — undermine efforts to create safe, stable, and nurturing environments. A large and growing body of research demonstrates that such policies are not only ineffective but detrimental to healthy child development, given that they foster feelings of mistrust between students and school staff, contribute to social isolation, and limit young people’s chances of overcoming other social determinants that can threaten their future health and prosperity.

Bearing the brunt of these harmful repercussions, students of color and students with disabilities continue to be pushed out of schools at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, often for similar offenses. Starting as early as preschool, black children face harsher and more frequent punishment in schools, compounding health inequities and depriving them of academic opportunities that set the foundation for a healthy life.

Fortunately, there is growing momentum in school districts across the country to move away from policies that perpetuate discipline disparities and to implement healthier alternatives — like restorative justice, social and emotional learning, and trauma-informed discipline — that promote health equity and cultivate positive school environments. In some cases, these types of changes have resulted from legal action — for example, in Kern High School District in California, which developed new discipline policies after it settled a discrimination lawsuit brought by parents, students, and community advocates. Other school districts have made voluntary changes to their discipline policies. Over the past few years, several school districts have adopted a school climate bill of rights or district-level policies that encourage conflict resolution and restorative disciplinary practices.

In San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which has one of the worst racial achievement gaps in the country, student activists played an important role in adoption of the district’s Safe and Supportive Schools Policy. Although SFUSD still faces challenges in fully implementing the policy, it was a critical first step in building a healthy school environment through culturally relevant curricula, improved communication skills, trauma-informed practices, and professional development opportunities in restorative practices and de-escalation techniques for staff members.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), enacted in 2015, provides states with an important opportunity to support students’ health and well-being by expanding the measures that school districts can use to evaluate school performance and success. Several states, including Illinois, Maryland, and Montana, now measure school climate and safety as indicators of success. ESSA also expanded federal funding opportunities to support education equity and opportunity for all students; notably, it authorizes school districts to use federal funding for efforts to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline or expand access to counseling and mental health services.

To learn more about improving a school’s psychosocial environment, check out the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’s policy brief, School Discipline Policy, and the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

3. Staff Wellness

School staff and educators are on the front lines of school-based efforts to promote the social, emotional, and cognitive development of students. To build a positive school climate, we must expand our focus, considering not just students but everyone in the school community. It is difficult to promote healthy development of children if the adults in a school community are unwell.

The health of all employees in the school community — including teachers, principals, cafeteria workers, janitors, and bus drivers — matters, yet their wellness is often overlooked. Job stress and declining mental health conditions for educators and school staff are significantly higher than for the general working population. When asked how often work was stressful, 61% of respondents to the American Federation of Teachers’ 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey reported feeling stressed all the time or often, compared with 30% of the general population. For many school employees, high stress levels are compounded by poor mental health and vicarious trauma, which is common for individuals who work directly with a large number of people (in this case, students) who are dealing with trauma.

Encouragingly, growing awareness and attention on the importance of self-care is reflected in local school wellness policies and district-wide policies and comprehensive programs that expand the focus of wellness provisions and activities to include school staff. Strategies — such as social and emotional learning (SEL) — that support children’s social and emotional development also have profoundly positive effects on educators’ health. For example, in preschool centers that had implemented SEL supports for children, research revealed that teachers were less depressed, were more satisfied with their job, felt more supported in managing challenging behavior, and viewed their workplace climate as more positive. Again, ESSA funds can help support the social and emotional well-being of both students and staff by funding, among other things, high-quality training for school personnel on effective and trauma-informed practices in classroom management as well as crisis management and conflict resolution techniques.

To learn more about how to promote school staff wellness, see Kaiser Permanente’s resources on school employees’ well-being.

4. Uplifting Students’ Voices

A positive school climate supports young people, promotes autonomy, and provides opportunities to participate in important decisionmaking processes. Consistent and deliberate efforts to engage young people in determining and shaping what their school should be are essential to effectively building a healthy school environment. Allowing students to meaningfully contribute to school-wide decisions not only builds self-esteem and leadership skills but increases the likelihood of acceptance and overall success of school policies. Students are the experts on many of the issues addressed in school-wide policies; they have a firsthand perspective on their school environment. And youth involvement creates buy-in from students who actively participate in the design and implementation of initiatives.

Research has found that, while many schools engage young people in community service opportunities, they often fall short on involving students in school decisionmaking processes. And because there are no laws or policies requiring student involvement in school improvement efforts, it is even more important that schools make concerted efforts to actively uplift student voices.

One strategy for amplifying student voices is encouraging students to sit on school wellness committees or other adult-led school committees, as well as looking to youth advisory committees to inform school decisionmaking. Federal law requires all school districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program to adopt a local school wellness policy. Among other requirements, participating school districts must allow the general public and the school community to participate in the wellness policy process, including development and implementation of the policies. School wellness committees (SWCs) play an important role in ensuring the health and well-being of students and staff in the school community. Some school districts expressly outline the required composition of their SWC. For example, Albuquerque Public Schools requires that their committee have equal representation of family/student/community members and Albuquerque Public Schools employees and lists the types of representatives, including students, that must sit on the committee.

Another approach to uplifting student voices is to create opportunities for youth-led school programming, such as peer-to-peer support, youth activism, or youth-driven research and organizing. Less resource-intensive strategies include conducting student surveys or having students help create and post announcements and posters for the student health center.

Community-organizing groups like Coleman Advocates — a San Francisco–based nonprofit that empowers low-income youth and parents to develop solutions that address education inequities — recognize the power of youth involvement in improving school climate. In 2014, their youth network helped launch the Solutions Not Suspensions movement that eventually led to SFUSD’s adoption of the Safe and Supportive Schools Policy mentioned earlier. As Neva Walker, executive director of Coleman Advocates, told student activists at a town hall meeting last fall: “For true change to happen, it has to be you leading us, and us supporting you along the way.”

To learn more about the importance of uplifting student voices or how to implement strategies for youth involvement, check out ChangeLab Solutions’ Pathways to Policy.

5. Parent and Family Engagement

A healthy school climate goes beyond the confines of classroom walls. Parent and family engagement with schools plays an important role in children’s social, health, and academic outcomes. Effectively engaging parents and families in their children’s school lives can lead to lower rates of absenteeism, fewer disciplinary actions, and improvements in social skills.

Unfortunately, however, some school policies and practices have a chilling effect on parent and family engagement and therefore put children and parents, especially those from low-income and immigrant families, at a disadvantage. For example, schools’ family engagement strategies may fail to account for language barriers or nontraditional work schedules, or teachers may lack the training or support they need to work with parents with diverse backgrounds and experiences. Further, negative school policies have an intergenerational impact: parents who have had negative school experiences may feel intimidated, unwelcome, or reluctant to become involved in their children’s education.

The good news is that we are not starting from scratch. For example, Johns Hopkins University’s National Network of Partnership Schools offers models that schools, districts, and states can adopt to create more inclusive communities. There are legal and policy opportunities at the federal level too. Changes to parent and family engagement efforts under ESSA now authorize districts to set aside more than the mandatory minimum of 1% of Title I funds for these efforts and mandate that funds be used for at least one of the following: professional development to support school staff in engaging families, home-based programs to engage families, disseminating information about best practices, collaborating with community-based organizations, or “other activities.” In addition, ESSA provisions for 21st Century Community Learning Centers support the creation of community learning centers that can offer literacy and other educational services to the families of participating children.

To learn more about requirements for parent and family engagement efforts under ESSA, see the National Education Association’s brief overview. For more research, toolkits, and policy information about parent and family engagement policy and practice, visit the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement’s website.

This piece is part of the Building Healthy, Equitable Communities Series and is the fifth of our policy posts exploring the often unexpected ways that laws and policies can help — or hinder — community health.

Want to learn more about how to transform school climate and promote health equity for students? Register for our upcoming webinar on September 18 and join the conversation with our expert panel on September 20.

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Alexis Etow, JD, is a senior staff attorney at ChangeLab Solutions, where she leads the organization’s work at the intersection of education and health. This work focuses on developing legal and policy strategies that advance safe and supportive learning environments, resiliency, and health equity.

Cesar De La Vega, JD, is a policy analyst at ChangeLab Solutions, where his work focuses on health equity, schools and child health, healthy housing, and creating active, accessible communities for all.

Additional research and support were provided by ChangeLab Solutions staff members Katie Hannon Michel, JD, MELP (legal fellow) and Sophia Pennella (program associate).

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