Report on School Climate Finds Cause For Concern

hs-sadnessBy Nicholas von Wettberg

Growing up, there is always that one teacher, coach, or instructor we considered our favorite, maybe because of the subject they taught, or particular sport they coached. Perhaps it was the counselor that took the time to listen to you while you went through some tough times at home, or in the classroom.

Looking back, it is no coincidence that we remember those kinds of adult educators, ones that inspire and mentor, who make students hungry to learn, in a caring and connected environment that is both engaging and fair.

Relationships matter, especially so for students, and in a positive school climate it is imperative that students are given all the tools and resources to perform at their academic best, and also grow socially, emotionally and physically.

In their meeting Thursday night, the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) Board received an update on improving school climate, which is Goal 6 in the district’s Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP).

Prior to the presentation, DJUSD Superintendent Winfred Roberson addressed the board, and said the district is “an academic center that focuses on academics, and students succeeding academically, but we recognize that the environment in which a student learns is important.”

He also said the YouthTruth survey and California Healthy Kids survey were important in letting the district know its effectiveness.

The district’s Coordinator of School Climate Kate Snow gave the data-driven update, beginning with the four main aspects to school climate: safety, relationships, teaching and learning, and organizational environment.

In order to bring a broader scope to their findings, Snow said the process includes both analytics with the data from students and hands-on observation in various school settings.

“That’s where we do the book of gathering of data about what a place feels like, what people are experiencing,” said Snow, who added that, after scrutinizing the data, they give their findings to the schools and the district.

She said that coming up with a definition for school climate is crucial.

“When we think of climate we think of it as taking the pulse of a body, in this instance a pulse tells you the health of a body, and it is not the body but it is the pulse that reacts to the environments it occupies and in the same way that our system, our students and our staff respond to the environment in which we keep them,” Snow said.

Two out of the four aspects of school climate, safety and relationships, were the focus of the presentation.

The results of the YouthTruth survey, which was administered in August 2015, is still being “sifted through,” according to Snow.

However, what did come into full view was the longitudinal data provided through the California Healthy Kids survey, which was given to a total of 2,692 students in Grades 5, 7, 9 and 11.

The indicators of safety and mental health were what elicited the most attention from board members during the question portion of the meeting, notably the percentage of response by students in 9th and 11th grades to chronic sadness/hopelessness and those who considered suicide.

Snow said the percentage of 11th graders who answered yes to thoughts of chronic sadness/hopelessness jumped to 34 percent. In 2013, the same question garnered a similar reaction at a rate of 25 percent.

Board member Alan Fernandes asked for Snow to clarify whether she was speaking about the students in the entire grade, or that 11th grade class in particular, to which she responded by saying it was the former.

Out of the current 12th graders who were part of the percentage of respondents who said yes to thoughts of chronic sadness/hopelessness, Snow said when that cohort was in 9th grade, 26 percent reported similar feelings.

Board member Susan Lovenburg, who called the chronic sadness and suicide data “really disturbing,” wondered what the committee’s response was, and if they felt there were some good strategies in place.

“We’ve been looking at that trend for quite a while, so hence, that’s why we have the student counseling program,” said Mel Lewis, Co-Coordinator of School Climate. “I think that’s one of the ways to best address some of these things right now, but it’s a national trending. You know there’s certain ways that education is really delivered at the moment and how kids are finding a different way to engage with the world.”

Lewis remarked to Lovenburg that the outlook depends on how the data is processed, and that the higher rates could translate to more kids possessing the confidence to report their feelings and attitudes.

“This could even be looked at like we are creating an environment that is safe enough that kids can identify what is really troubling them,” Lewis said. “Now it’s for us to really engage with them differently.”

Additionally, the percentage of 11th graders who said they considered suicide in 2015 is a five percent increase from the numbers gathered in 2013, Snow informed the five-member board.

Trustee Tom Adams said that he was curious about the reaction of the two student board members, Winston Tran and Eli Inkelas.

“Does this ring true to you what you see here?” Adams asked, turning to face the two high school students seated to his left. “Can we get their impressions first?”

“I can’t say I ever thought about the percentages of my grade that have experienced chronic hopelessness, or attempted suicide, but it certainly is something you hear about and that you have friends, acquaintances who you know that have been there,” Inkelas said.

Inkelas said he was surprised at the percentages for juniors, and the rate of increase from the past. He also said the Class of 2018 numbers for bullying/harassment by cohort, for the 9th graders, was “surprising” and that the downward spike on the connectedness by cohort was “a little bit alarming” and “hopefully that’s an anomaly.”

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  1. Frankly

    Here is a probable contributing reason.  It makes sense to me.

    The article is miss-labeled though.  It is not “sprawl” but increased population density… something that usually results from sprawl, but in Davis we don’t quite understand that.

    It is a well-known phenomenon that higher population density can impact the human condition with greater feelings of loneliness.  Of course there are those liberal social justice crusaders fighting this long-understood condition saying it is a myth, but their evidence is weak and non-scientific.  It is an inconvenient truth for their global-warming-theory-fueled agenda for a new world order where we cram people together in small enclosures so they don’t have to drive a car.

    Of course this isn’t the only cause of depression and suicidal thoughts, but it might very well explain at least some of the increase we see in Davis has we cram more and more people into our artificially geographically-constrained city.   The no-growthers in this town might very well be sacrificing a few of our children to satiate their irrational fears of city growth.

    1. hpierce

      Frankly I believe both the article cited, and the supposition that the opposite is linked to suicides are both a “crock” (pick your substance of choice for what is in the crock).  I was trained in, and worked Suicide Prevention hot lines in Davis/Yolo, and the SF Peninsula… had many calls that based on my training were ‘high lethality’ (one of the reasons I no longer do that).

      C’mon… correlation does NOT equal causality… tying urban density to suicide rates (and why should we care, given the recent state law… where we ‘support’ suicide) is bogus, ill-informed, and just plain stupid.  [yeah, one of my “buttons” just got pushed… apologize in advance]… there was no difference in the “lethality” percentage of the calls I handled in ‘rural’ Yolo County than there was on the SF peninsula… very different as to population density.  But, just my opinion… have no cites except my experience, which (for ‘transparency’) was only ~ 600 hours [most on Fridays, between 8 pm and 8 am].  For what it’s worth.

        1. wdf1

          hpierce:  what event triggered the Davis-based (originally) SP hot-line?

          The Davis Enterprise, April 30, 2006 says:

          The idea of a suicide prevention service in Davis began with the Rev. Philip Walker of Davis United Methodist Church, after a murder-suicide involving a graduate student and his wife. It left two children to be raised by grandparents.

          Walker gathered some of his friends (including the “Sunset Court Mafia,” named after the caring activists of that Central Davisneighborhood) in November 1965 to discuss what could be done to help people in crisis at the moment they suffer most. In spring 1966, a core group decided to create a structured way to help those in need.

    2. Don Shor


      they found a clear statistical pattern showing that the death rate fell as population density increased (or vice versa). This was true for charts of all 50 American states plus D.C. as well as charts of about 1,000 U.S. counties. The strongest link held for external deaths, such as suicide and accidents; other types of death, such as death from disease, weren’t really affected by density.

      1. Frankly

        Interesting that this study and other studies don’t separate the hyper-dense from the general average density.  Since the suicide rate of youth plateaus when density gets to 300 people per sq km (only 186 per sq mile)… it does not really measure the impact of varying levels of urban density (only rural verses urban… which is not really useful especially in CA).  Davis density of 7,200 per square mile is orders of magnitude more dense than is this 186 per square mile delineation in this an other studies.   I am looking for other research references I have read in the past that show an increase in youth suicide measured above the 300 per sq km density.  It is hard to find… something that indicates to me that the research done generally has an agenda.

  2. Frankly

    This is very interesting, but does not explain the Davis issue.

    This is interesting too…

    Over-use of alcohol causes decreased natural happy hormone production and can lead to greater natural depression.  Interesting that smoking marijuana does not appear to have the same impact.

  3. MrsW

    The Enterprise provided even more percentages School Board Hears Update.

    I believe in considering individual persons and lives.  Afterall, as pointed out above, it’s commonly thought that just one teacher or school-related adult can make a difference in a person’s one life.  So, I decided to look at the numbers.  The 2692 children polled were in 4 different grades. Assuming an equal number of students from each grade responded, 673 students in 11th grade were polled.  [The Davis High School web-site says that in 2014-15, there were 547 eleventh graders (See About DHS), suggesting that ALL of our 11th graders responded to the poll!]  34% of 673 is 229 students who feel chronic hopelessness.  229 lives. Other way to present the numbers — 1 out 3 students feel chronic hopelessness.

    Some other thoughts: (1) If you are a teacher or administrator, maybe 66% that feel OK is not so bad?  Afterall, 66% is a “D” and is “passing.”; (2) the poll was given in August, at the beginning of the school year, not at the end of the year–how will students respond now, after a semesters worth of school interactions?  and (3) a high school student who attends the School Board meeting is engaged in school–I hope Tom Adams realizes that the student representatives to the School Board may not be representing the 34% part of the student population.


    1. wdf1

      MrsW:  (1) If you are a teacher or administrator, maybe 66% that feel OK is not so bad?  Afterall, 66% is a “D” and is “passing.”; 

      I would like to see the full survey.  I’m disappointed that they didn’t release the full survey.  Without a fuller context, interpretation can be wildly speculative.  I even question if the 34% was read correctly.  If you follow the video of the meeting on this agenda item, there were at least a couple of other errors that were acknowledged in presentation.  When I see that happen, it makes me want to go back and check the original data if other errors were made.

      MrsW: (2) the poll was given in August, at the beginning of the school year, not at the end of the year–how will students respond now, after a semesters worth of school interactions? 

      I understand that the survey was given in the spring of 2015.  So the 11th graders then are seniors this year.

      MrsW: 229 lives. Other way to present the numbers — 1 out 3 students feel chronic hopelessness.

      And my take on this is that schools have increasingly focused on curricular content (stuff you can measure in standardized tests) that there is a lack of focus on non-cognitive skills, like resilience, perseverance, and stress management.  I think potentially this also carries over into unhealthy focus on GPA, without regard to what it is that the student might actually be interested in.  So you have students avoiding taking courses that aren’t AP (which offer 5 points for an A vs. 4 points for a non-AP class), because such courses would pull down a GPA, and also adding stress to their lives.

    2. wdf1

      12/25/2015, NY Times: New Jersey School District Eases Pressure on Students, Baring an Ethnic Divide

      This fall, David Aderhold, the superintendent of a high-achieving school district near Princeton, N.J., sent parents an alarming 16-page letter.

      The school district, he said, was facing a crisis. Its students were overburdened and stressed out, juggling too much work and too many demands.

      In the previous school year, 120 middle and high school students were recommended for mental health assessments; 40 were hospitalized. And on a survey administered by the district, students wrote things like, “I hate going to school,” and “Coming out of 12 years in this district, I have learned one thing: that a grade, a percentage or even a point is to be valued over anything else.”

      With his letter, Dr. Aderhold inserted West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District into a national discussion about the intense focus on achievement at elite schools, and whether it has gone too far.

      At follow-up meetings, he urged parents to join him in advocating a holistic, “whole child” approach to schooling that respects “social-emotional development” and “deep and meaningful learning” over academics alone. The alternative, he suggested, was to face the prospect of becoming another Palo Alto, Calif., where outsize stress on teenage students is believed to have contributed to two clusters of suicides in the last six years.

      But instead of bringing families together, Dr. Aderhold’s letter revealed a fissure in the district, which has 9,700 students, and one that broke down roughly along racial lines. On one side are white parents like Catherine Foley, a former president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at her daughter’s middle school, who has come to see the district’s increasingly pressured atmosphere as antithetical to learning.

      “My son was in fourth grade and told me, ‘I’m not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my résumé,’ ” Ms. Foley said.

      On the other side are parents like Mike Jia, one of the thousands of Asian-American professionals who have moved to the district in the past decade, who said Dr. Aderhold’s reforms would amount to a “dumbing down” of his children’s education.

  4. MrsW

    The NYTimes article cited by wdf1, explicitly describes parental fears and I believe those fears exist in Davis, too.  They are presented as if they describe “sides,”  but I’m not convinced they really are.  Dr. Aderhold has just shown that he is ignorant of how to communicate with parents from a culture different from his.  He can try again.  In fact, he can try as many times as he needs to get it right.  It’s not the end. It’s the beginning.

    Recognizing the fullness of human experience creates the opportunity for greater achievement.  Athletes who perform at a high level, and their parents, understand how important mental health is to maximizing performance.  It’s not a great leap, to generalize to academic performance. Immediate feedback is known by professional trainers of adults, children, and animals to improve the likelihood of exhibiting a desired behavior.  If a person’s run-of-the-mill ordinary human condition related fears and anxieties are getting into his/her way to performance, it’s rational to address them in the environment provoking the response.

    The adults at a school set the school climate.  They are the Leaders.  They form the Leadership.  Children and parents come and go, but the administrators, teachers, and staff set the climate.  When adults won’t take responsibility to create a workplace for themselves and the children in their charge that is positive and growth-producing, we should be asking why they won’t take responsibility and if that can be changed.


    1. wdf1

      MrsW:  The NYTimes article cited by wdf1, explicitly describes parental fears and I believe those fears exist in Davis, too.  They are presented as if they describe “sides,”  but I’m not convinced they really are. 

      I have been reflecting more on this article a lot since I posted it, especially on the ethnic divide aspect of the article.  I think it’s too strong to say there are ethnic preferences — too much generalizing that can get harmful.  I think the NY Times writer may have been trying to be excessively provocative to attract readership.  The term, “clickbait” is sometimes used.

      It’s probably more accurate to say that there are aspects of family education level and family education experience that inform parents to lean one way or another in the debate.  Not that any of that education background is absolute in predicting what a parent would prefer to see.

  5. Frankly

    I was thinking about this topic and my my mind wandered to my healthcare situation.  I have my GP and then there is a small army of specialists that he can refer me to based on my needs that he helps diagnose.

    Are there any studies about the benefits of keeping the home room model alive… where a child has a primary teacher keeping tabs and helping him diagnose what he needs from the other “specialist” teachers?

    I was also thinking about my experience managing employees and thinking how stressful and chaotic it would be for them having a new boss every 90 minutes each day… with most them uninformed about the other bosses are requiring for performance.  And some of them lousy bosses that don’t give clear instructions and don’t set clear performance expectations and give off a vibe that they would rather be somewhere else.  And then on top of that the parents of my employees are involved in their performance assessments.  Lastly, my employees are high on hormones, are socially under-developed and dealing with tons of peer pressure.   I’m sure in these circumstances I would end up with employees needing some cognitive behavior therapy.

    It seems to me we would be better served having an education (life?) advocate that each student is assigned to.  The system as designed better serves the student of the helicopter parent, tiger-mom, etc., that fills this role.  But not all of these parents know how to balance the stress level of their kids while pushing them to excel at academics or sports or whatever else they are doing.   And then there are the kids that really have no one paying attention as they flounder and stress.

    Just curious if the home-room question comes up in discussions about better methods.

  6. MrsW

    I agree about an on-campus life-coach would be helpful to some students and I suspect it would right-off-the-bat, make an observable percentage dent in the achievement gap.  I have heard home room brought up and discarded as too expensive and/or taking time away from academic achievement.  Some of the programs for children with disabilities or who meet certain risk factors (AVID), essentially provide a home room for one period, but its treated like an elective and the student may not be able to take foreign language, wood shop or something else s/he is interested in. That is discouraging to some temperaments.

    With respect to academic and other life achievement opportunities in Davis, California, it seems to me that one pro-personal development way DJUSD could open up opportunities for students would be to offer drivers education again, with in-car lessons.  A drivers license is still a right of passage, but fewer children are getting them because of the expense. We live in a small flat town with wide roads. For the child looking for non-school and work-related experiences, driving opens up those opportunities.  For both the more academic student or the one who is still finding herself, driving would open up getting to Sac City College (free to HS students), Woodland Community College (free to HS students) and UC Davis.  If a significant number of students were able to conveniently test out college, on a real college campus, maybe that would free up DJUSD time/money for home room; maybe that would get a few more of our kids imagining themselves in college who wouldn’t otherwise go; and maybe a few others would study what s/he were interested in and not just what looks good on a college application.

    1. wdf1

      MrsW:  Some of the programs for children with disabilities or who meet certain risk factors (AVID), essentially provide a home room for one period, but its treated like an elective and the student may not be able to take foreign language, wood shop or something else s/he is interested in.

      Two of my three kids were recommended for AVID at some point.  In both cases we opted not to have them do that program.  In researching the AVID curriculum, I found that it covered a lot of topics on how to reinforce knowledge and understanding of academic culture and the life that comes after an academic experience — for instance, learning about resources for doing research of various kinds, writing a resume, how to plan and organize for school, how to take notes, how to balance life and school.  Many of these things might often be addressed by parents.  But I also remember that in my time in grade school, other classes would cover some of these topics at some point.  For instance, my high school English class went through a unit on how to research and write a research paper, how to take notes, and how to write a resume.

      If it takes an AVID class to adequately cover these issues for students, then it tells me that other classes where this material would have been covered in the past are now being obligated to cover additional content in the name of academic rigor.

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