…Despite Attempts by the Superintendent and Principals to Minimize and Deny It
Bullying Has Long Lasting Impact on Children Who Are Victims
Comparing Professional Climate Survey with “In-House” Product
April 29. 2016
Becky Smerdon, PhD is a Falls Church City resident and has 20 years of experience conducting education research. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on the impact of school climate on secondary students’ engagement and academic achievement, using large-scale survey data.
Liz Hume, holds a JD and an MA in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding. She is an expert in the field of conflict resolution and is the Senior Director at the Alliance for Peacebuilding. She wrote her capstone on the impact anti-bullying programs have on reducing bullying behavior in schools and how can schools design evidenced based programs that are effective in reducing bullying. The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding.
You may have seen that the Falls Church City School Board recently voted to conduct a teacher survey that addresses, among other things, many important school climate dimensions. What you may not know is that Falls Church City Public Schools administered climate surveys to students, parents, and teachers at TJ, MEH, and GMHS this school year. (Teachers were not surveyed at MEH.) The surveys show how students, teachers, and parents feel about the climate of ours schools, and these perceptions crash up against FCCPS’ messaging about the quality of our schools. Indeed, it is our experience that FCCPS minimizes and denies that bullying happens in our schools.
Make no mistake, bullying has significant and long lasting impact on our children. Children who are bullied are much more likely to suffer anxiety, depression or self-harm, not to mention the impact on their academic engagement and achievement. Virginia school boards have been required by law to include bullying prevention as a part of character education since 2005, and school boards are expected to include bullying as a prohibited behavior in their student codes of conduct. FCCPS policy states that “bullying” means any aggressive and unwanted behavior that is intended to harm, intimidate, or humiliate the victim; involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the aggressor or aggressors and victim; and is repeated over time or causes severe emotional trauma. “Bullying” includes cyber-bullying and does not include ordinary teasing, horseplay, argument, or peer conflict (FCCPS Standards of Student Conduct-Regulation 9.34R). Although no federal law directly addresses bullying, when bullying becomes a form of harassment, federally-funded schools (including FCCPS) have an obligation to resolve the harassment. A school that fails to respond appropriately to harassment of students based on a protected class may be violating one or more civil rights laws enforced by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice.
The school climate surveys administered at TJ and GMHS were conducted by the National School Climate Center (NSCC). NSCC is one of the nation’s leaders in school climate reform and they have been conducting school climate surveys for nearly 15 years. We applaud FCCPS for administering climate surveys and FCCPS made a sound decision contracting with this organization to administer surveys in 2 of our schools. The school climate survey administered to students and parents (not teachers) at MEH was developed by FCCPS.
This is the first in a series of articles about the school climate survey data and it focuses on bullying at MEH because research shows that bullying peaks during middle school. Secondarily, the MEH survey allows us to make a secondary point by illustrating why it is important to administer good surveys and to report all of the data and more importantly then actually do something with it.
It is not clear why MEH’s survey was developed “in house,” while TJ and GMHS had professional administration and reporting. Survey development is a science and for good reason; good surveys are necessary to collect good data. Among the many important characteristics of good surveys is developing carefully worded, concise questions and responses that leave little room for interpretation. There are a number of significant design flaws in the MEH survey. For example, the survey includes the following question: I believe that MEH is preparing me for college and a career in the 21st century. The response categories are: (1) yes, I agree, (2) mostly, and (3) no, not really. There are a few problems with this survey item. First, it assumes that all students know what it means to be “prepared for college and a career in the 21st century;” there is no “don’t know” category. One of us, Dr. Smerdon, is a national expert on the topic of college and career readiness and she doesn’t know what is meant by this item.
Second, the response options do not provide clear, definitive statements on both ends of the continuum—“no, not really” is not the same as “no.” An alternative would have been to create 5 response options: strongly disagree, disagree, agree, strongly agree, don’t know. This approach allows students to indicate they do not know, allows for clear differentiation between agreement and disagreement, and reflects that agreement is not always black and white. These may seem like small things, but they make a big difference. It is for this reason that we: (1) recommend caution when reviewing and interpreting the MEH survey results and (2) are deeply disappointed that the NSCC survey was not administered at MEH.
Like the TJ and GMHS surveys, we recently obtained the MEH survey results through a FOIA request. We could not find survey results on the FCCPS, TJ, MEH, or GMHS websites, which is a shame particularly because the NSCC reports of survey results for TJ and GMHS are very thorough and informative. Item level response rates are especially important to share because there are many different interpretations of the response.
For example, in Mr. Harris’ 12/13/15 email to MEH parents, he reported the following:
The percentages below are a combination of “yes” and “mostly” responses for that particular question, with at least 65% saying “yes.”
- 99% feel safe at school (building security).
- 97% feel that MEH provides a safe learning environment where students can learn, grow, and be themselves.
- 96% feel that teachers and admin care about their success.
- 95% feel that MEH is a place where all students are made to feel welcome.
As parents of 4 children in MEH, we have a different lens when we review the responses. We’re very concerned about instances where a lot of kids responded “yes, I agree” or “no, not really.” For example, when asked if they feel safe at school, we interpret “mostly” to mean that there are times they do not feel safe. We prefer to focus on the “yes, I agree” response because we want our children, and your children, to always feel completely safe at school—we do not want “mostly safe” for our children.
Using this lens, our interpretation of the data are different:
- 83% feel safe at school (building security).
- 66% feel that MEH provides a safe learning environment where students can learn, grow, and be themselves.
- 64% feel that teachers and 79% feel that admin care about their success.
- 68% feel that MEH is a place where all students are made to feel welcome.
Another example from Mr. Harris’ 12/13/15 email with our interpretation of the data following each bullet:
- About 20% of students said that they do not feel comfortable telling a teacher, counselor, or administrator if they have a concern. (He went on to write: “While this number does not seem high……”)
- Only 33% of students indicated that “yes, I agree” that “I feel comfortable telling a teacher if I have a concern.” 42% of students responded “yes, I agree” to telling feeling comfortable telling a counselor and 38% of them responded “yes, I agree” to telling an administrator.
Personally, we’d like to see this be 100%–every one of our children responds definitively that “yes, I agree.”
Another example from Mr. Harris’ 12/13/15 email:
- 10% of students said that bullying is a problem at MEH.
- 64% of students responded “no” to the survey question: “I feel that bullying is a problem at MEH. 11% responded “yes” and 25% responded “somewhat.” 1 out of 3 MEH students feels that bullying (either definitively—yes or to some degree—somewhat) is a problem at MEH.
Survey quality issues notwithstanding, as parents of MEH students, we have a very different interpretation of the school climate survey than the principal. We expect our children to attend schools where they feel safe all of the time and are not bullied. We expect safety, bullying, harassment to be taken seriously and addressed immediately and not minimized which is often the case at MEH. As one parent wrote on the MEH survey: “Deeply disturbed by many incidents of bullying at the school.” Another parent wrote: “Leadership handles disciplinary issues in a chaotic and inexperienced manner. For example, kids are bullied, sexually harassed, and scream foul language in the cafeteria….the problem is not that there are problems but that leadership does not effectively and professionally deal with them.”
Our children have a legal right to these protections. Furthermore, we expect a school system where good surveys are administered and all data are reported so that our leaders can make decisions based on good data and our community may better understand our schools and our children’s and educators’ experiences in them. Finally, we are troubled by the need of the school administration to neutralize or deny any behavior that is bullying or harassment in our schools. This repeated inability to accept the fact that bullying and harassment occurs at MEH and downplaying the fact that 20% of the students do not feel comfortable telling an appropriate person (we interpret the responses to say 1 in 3 do not feel comfortable, but consider 20% to be high as well) contributes to a culture that allows bullying and sexual harassment to flourish at MEH.
In our next articles, we will share school climate results from TJ and GMHS and provide some research-supported recommendations for improving school climate.