June 8, 2017
The Case for a Student-Driven Approach to Improving School Climate
By Zachariah Sippy
I'd had enough. The swastika scrawled on a bathroom stall in my high school was the last straw. After experiencing a year and a half of anti-Semitism in my school, I took to Facebook to post a testimonial.
I was tired of being called a Christ killer, subjected to Jew jokes, derided for the "greed of my people," and mocked for the size of my nose—and I was tired of seeing swastikas. I was, above all, tired of being told that "anti-Semitism is no longer a problem"—even by the perpetrators of these actions, who said they were "just having fun and joking around.
That is why I found it so distressing that the first question administrators asked me when they heard of these actions was, "Who did this?"
The bigotry I experienced in school was rooted in ignorance, not malice. What we sorely needed was dialogue, not penal measures. Many of the offenders were my friends and peers, and I had shared my experience in an effort to catalyze a conversation.
The disconnect I felt with my administrators exemplifies a larger issue: students and adults often see school climate in radically different lights.
The National School Climate Center found that adults in the school community (school personnel and parents or guardians) typically believe that social violence is a mild to moderately severe problem, while students consistently report it is a severe one.
Research my peers conducted here in Kentucky further corroborated that finding. When the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team surveyed the entire student body and staff of a central Kentucky junior high school, not a single teacher described bullying as a major issue, while 230 students explicitly identified it as the most pressing one.
Students have a vested interest in building a favorable learning environment, yet traditional school systems often ignore or even stifle our potential to contribute. Formal opportunities to share feedback with adults about what is not working are nonexistent. Adults usually tackle challenges in the school system around students instead of with us.
Perhaps that is why I was pleasantly surprised at the response to my Facebook post: my local newspaper and TV stations contacted me, and many of my teachers and peers assured me that they heard me and wanted to help make a change.
Students are on the front lines of our schools. Our perspective can help build a more complete picture of our education system, yet we typically have no seats at the decision-making table. Many students don't know where to go, whom to address, and what the processes are for improving our schools. Additionally, even if we do know how to advocate for ourselves and others, most of us doubt that adults will hear us and that our efforts will lead to change.
For the last year, the Student Voice Team has traveled across Kentucky to ask students directly about their school experiences. Our Students as Partners listening tour has led us from Appalachian coal country and other rural areas to Kentucky's urban centers. What we have heard repeatedly is that most students feel as if they cannot change their school experience.
In our discussions with more than 2,000 students, we have found that from elementary school on, many students sense that they should not voice their opinions. We function in a system that largely dismisses our input on anything beyond planning social events and fundraisers, prompting us to become passive and divorced from what we see. Many of us, myself included, find ourselves acting as passive bystanders when we hear homophobic or racial slurs in the hallway.
Intentionally or not, our schools advance a sense of learned helplessness resulting in a vicious cycle where we don't share our perspectives and concerns and where educators don't seek them out. This leads to an empathy gap among students and between students and staff, where the most important school stakeholders neglect to see one another as human beings.
However, we are not hopeless. We can unleash the full potential of students to serve as education assets. From designing, disseminating, and analyzing surveys that solicit real-time student feedback on the education system to facilitating regular conversations with our peers and staff about how well the system is working, young people can help drive the improvement process.
We students need opportunities to exercise agency over our education and to partner fully in efforts to ensure that our schools are the best they can be. With more adult support, encouragement, and partnership, we are ready to tackle our school system's greatest challenges.
The Kentucky Student Voice Team is a statewide organization of young people who are co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools & communities as research, policy & advocacy partners.
It was founded in 2012 at the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, an independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led organization working to improve education in Kentucky—early childhood through postsecondary. Since 2021, KSVT has been an independent organization.
This article was originally published in the journal ASCD Express in the issue titled "Targeting Bullying Blind Spots" (Vol. 12, No. 19).