Survey Finds Strengths And Weaknesses In East Hampton High School’s Social Climate

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East Hampton High School needs to work at making students feel safe from teasing and exclusion, an anonymous survey of students, staff and parents has found. The survey measured perceptions of the school environment in the wake of the suicide of David Hernandez, a junior, last fall, which some attributed to bullying.

“David’s suicide struck everybody to the core here,” Principal Adam Fine said in May after the results of the survey, which was given at the end of February, had come in. Administering the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory was part of a broader attempt to see what the school could do better.

The survey assessed feelings about safety, relationships, learning and communication at the high school by analyzing answers to 70 questions.

Mr. Fine called it “really a great tool and a powerful tool” that provides solid data instead of anecdotal evidence. It was given in both English and Spanish.

On a scale of 1 to 5, participants were asked to agree or disagree with such statements as “My school tries to get all families to be part of school activities.”

All three groups of respondents gave their lowest grade—about a 3—to what was called the “dimension” of social-emotional security, measured by the responses to statements like “I have been insulted, teased, harassed or otherwise verbally abused more than once in this school.”

For East Hampton High School students, the median score for this dimension was a 2.89; for staff, a 3.33; and for parents, a 3.11. Students whose first language was Spanish gave the school better marks—the median was a 3.0—than native English speakers, for whom the median grade was a 2.89.

Girls gave lower marks than boys—a 2.83 versus a 3.0.

On the plus side, Mr. Fine said he was pleased to find that “kids do not feel afraid to go to staff members.”

In fact, the students’ second-highest grade went to statements assessing “social support—adults,” which measured things like adults’ willingness to listen to and get to know students as individuals.

“That happened to be my biggest fear—that that was going to come up low,” Mr. Fine said this week. “My philosophy in the building is that kids need someone,” whether a secretary, a cafeteria worker, a teacher or someone else, he said.

The highest mark from students—a 3.83—went to there being a distinct sense of “rules and norms” at the school, measured by responses to statements like “In my school, there are clear rules against physically hurting other people (for example, hitting, pushing or tripping).” School staff gave this category one of their highest grades, a 4.17, while parents gave it a 3.83.

The second-lowest marks—a median of 3.5—from students were in the dimension of “social and civic learning,” which also had a relatively low score, of 3.25, from parents.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Mr. Fine said this week. A steering committee formed last fall and other stakeholders in the school have been looking at the results with an eye toward using them to improve programs and student support services.

Mr. Fine added, however, that the survey also demonstrated that there is already a solid foundation to work from, whether it’s a clear sense of rules, a sense that there are adults for students to turn to, or a sense of what he called “collegial relationships” among adults, as demonstrated by a solid 4.10 from staff in the dimension of “professional relationships.”

About 80.6 percent, or 732 students of the school’s 908 students, completed the surveys, which were given during English classes. Among high school personnel, 113 of 125 staff members, or 90.4 percent, filled them out. Parents—“obviously the most difficult” to reach, as they’re not in the school building—responded at a rate of 27.4 percent, or about 252 households out of an estimated 920. According to Mr. Fine, a response rate of 15 percent was need for a statistically valid level.

The survey results were analyzed by the nonprofit National School Climate Center. Mr. Fine and others have been presenting the results to people in the school community with an eye toward what he called “action planning” in September. At the same time, administrators have been lobbying to improve mental health services in East Hampton, in particular through the New York State Office of Mental Health.

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