Although there is not one commonly accepted definition for school climate in high schools, the vast majority of researchers and scholars suggest that school climate, at its heart, reflects subjective experience in school–that is, how safe and nurtured students and, to some extent, parents and teachers, feel in school. Climate particularly reflects the existence (or absence) of a safe and orderly environment in which to learn. Not surprisingly, then, creating environments free of violence and other crimes is a high priority for schools. Given that one of the important factors in climate is safety, students must feel safe in their school environments if they are to achieve the academic and prosocial goals necessary for them to move forward.
Unfortunately, the climates of many of U.S. schools have changed from safe and nurturing to fearful and fraught with violence, both physical and emotional. The reason for these changes is simple: Violence in schools has been increasing in recent years. The potential danger of school violence is exemplified by such incidents as the shootings at Virginia Tech University and Columbine High School. Although these mass shootings have come to define the notion of school violence, they are really only the most egregious examples. Violence in schools is both spectacular, like the aforementioned events, and subtle. The spectacular forms include not only mass shootings, but also gang activity and gang violence. The subtle forms of school violence are exemplified by bullying, both traditional and nontraditional. Nontraditional bullying may take the form of sexual harassment, sometimes resulting in sexual violence, as well as racial and religious harassment. In addition, many young students are bullied and otherwise targeted because of their sexual orientation.
Accordingly, the climate in U.S. high schools has evolved from open environments, where students walked freely through the halls, to something resembling armed camps. In the latter environments, schools are replete with airport-like security checkpoints, with weapons detectors and armed security officers roaming the halls. Increasing the safety of the school climate by changing the environment into the “armed camp” model is one method of dealing with violence. Unfortunately, this type of climate is an extreme measure and is counterproductive. Today’s research is seeking to identify which approaches best address physical safety as well as emotional and psychological safety.
The subtle forms of violence may actually be more insidiously threatening to the feelings of safety of students because they occur more frequently and are largely undetectable. Teasing, bullying, and gay bashing are some of the more prevalent problems faced by high school students today. The means to address these problems rely on the creation of safe and nurturing climates, where there are clearly delineated guidelines for behaviors and attitudes. Many schools have sought to make their climates safer by emphasizing prosocial learning, mandating counseling, and increasing parental involvement.
Educators and law enforcement officials are continually looking for new strategies to address violence and are finding that the climate of the high schools is a key factor in this effort. The most important steps a high school can take in preventing violence focus on both the affective and the physical environment. These measures include promoting a positive school climate and culture, teaching and modeling prosocial behaviors, and providing effective intervention when antisocial behaviors occur or when individual students demonstrate a propensity for violence. In addition, school-wide prevention and intervention strategies can mitigate threats.
Indeed, climate is much more than simply the academic environment. Over the last decade, studies from a range of historically somewhat disparate fields (e.g., risk prevention, health promotion, character education, mental health, and social-emotional learning) have identified research-based school improvement guidelines that can predictably create safe, caring, responsive, and participatory high schools.
Over the last two decades, educators and parents alike have learned that school climate–the quality and character of school life–serves to support students’ learning and achievement. Research confirms that a safe and supportive school climate, in which students have positive social relationships and are respected, engaged in their work, and feel competent, matters tremendously.
- American Psychological Association. (2003). Presidential task force on prevention, promoting strength, resilience, and health in young people, American Psychologist, 58(6-7), 425-490.
- Cohen, J. (2006). Social, emotional, ethical and academic education: Creating a climate for learning, participation in democracy and well-being. Harvard Educational Review, 76(2), 201-237.
- Freiberg, H. J. (Ed.). (1999). School climate: Measuring, improving and sustaining healthy learning environments. Philadelphia, PA: Falmer Press.