New research shows that bullying is increasingly prevalent in K-12 schools, meaning it has never been more important to invest in building positive school climates.

In a study published in Review of Educational Research in November 2016, researchers reported finding “substantial evidence” that a “positive school climate” — one characterized by caring teachers, student connectedness, parental involvement, and a sense of safety from violence and bullying — can both narrow achievement gaps and improve overall academic outcomes.

“Our findings suggest that by promoting a positive climate, schools can allow greater equality in educational opportunities, decrease socioeconomic inequalities, and enable more social mobility,” said study coauthor and University of Southern California professor Ron Avi Astor. In other words, the study confirmed something educators have known intuitively for years: students perform better when they feel safe and supported at school.

As self-apparent as this conclusion may be, recent surveys conducted by the nonprofit advocacy group YouthTruth suggest that districts continue to fall short in providing students with sufficiently positive school climates — especially when it comes to establishing a sense of safety from violence and bullying.

Students from Historically Disadvantaged Groups Particularly Vulnerable to Bullying

YouthTruth has been talking to students about their experiences with bullying since the 2015-2016 academic year. Covering the 2017-2018 academic year, its latest report aggregated responses from more than 180,000 fifth- through twelfth-graders attending schools strewn across 37 states.

According to the report, 33 percent of students claimed to have been bullied during the 2017-2018 academic year, a 5 percent uptick in the span of just 24 months. Concerningly — though, sadly, not surprisingly — students who identified as part of an historically disadvantaged group bore the brunt of this increase.

For instance, in schools with predominantly white student bodies, the rate at which students of color were bullied jumped 7 percent between the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 academic years, more than doubling the 3 percent increase in the rate at which white students were bullied. Similarly, when asked why they thought they were bullied, 17 percent of students cited their race and 15 percent cited their sexual orientation, response rates that were topped only by incidents of bullying stemming from students’ visual appearance (which, at 44 percent, was by far the most frequently cited nexus of bullying).

These findings echoed YouthTruth’s previous report (covering the 2016-2017 academic year), which indicated that students who identified as neither male nor female were bullied twice as frequently as self-identified males (44 percent versus 22 percent) and nearly 50 percent more frequently than self-identified females (30 percent). This edition also found that, despite the extensive column space it has received, the rate of cyberbullying (23 percent) remains lower than the rates of physical bullying (28 percent), social harassment (54 percent), and verbal harassment (73 percent).

The Building Blocks of a Positive School Climate

While parents and community members certainly have roles to play in reversing these troubling trends, educators are arguably best-positioned to jump-start meaningful progress in the anti-bullying movement. In fact, according to a study published in School Psychology International, students want their teachers to take a proactive approach to helping solve bully-victim conflicts, and tend to “prefer intervention strategies in which teachers effectively manage their classrooms, thereby deterring bullying.”

Most experts on bullying believe deploying such strategies requires integrating bullying prevention measures into a school’s day-to-day routine. Speaking to Washington Monthly about one school’s particularly successful anti-bullying regime, Astor explained, “Rather than hav[ing] a program for mathematics, a program for reading, a program for bullying…everything was wrapped up in a single philosophy. I like to describe it as having more central air rather than window air.”

However, as former U.S. Department of Education Director of Strategic Initiatives Joaquin Tamayo points out, “Improving school climate is tough, it’s tedious, it’s incremental.” Teachers and other staff members not only need to be kept apprised of the policies and initiatives their schools put in place to combat bullying, they also need to be provided with professional development courses designed to help them develop the requisite skills to intervene in delicate situations effectively and appropriately.

As critical as such professional development is, many districts simply don’t have the resources to provide it on a consistent enough basis to drive real results. This is where a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform comes into play.

By streamlining their data collection, validation, and submission processes, CheckPoint makes it easy for school districts across Ohio to maximize the funding they receive from local, state, and federal sources. Few things in education are more important than ensuring students feel safe and supported, and we’re committed to helping educators access the resources they need to build warm, welcoming school climates across The Buckeye State.