A Necessary Climate Change

School climate’s role in school safety

Today’s schools have anti-bullying programs, active shooter drills, training on how to handle the aftermath of a trauma and Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting program that allows anyone to report concerning behavior relating to school safety.

But there’s a missing piece, says Cheryl Spittler, a UNC adjunct faculty member in the School of Special Education.

“We need to look at school climate and talk about it in light of school safety,” she says. “We don’t think of climate itself as being part of safety. But I always say, ‘Stinkin’ thinkin’ always breeds more stinkin’ thinkin.’”

While climate is hard to define, it’s easily discerned, Spittler says.

“Some schools you can just feel have a good or bad climate,” she says. “It has a lot to do with trust – students trusting teachers, teachers trusting administration. It’s about relationships. Do teachers know how to connect and ask students, ‘Is everything OK?’”

In the report on the shootings, Goodman and fellow researchers found that failures in systems thinking, or “groupthink,” was partly responsible for the shootings, in that students and faculty at the school felt they couldn’t talk to anyone about their concerns about Pierson. And if they did express concerns, nothing happened.

That “groupthink” is about climate, says Spittler. “It’s almost a form of bullying in a sense,” she says. “I get it. As a teacher you don’t want to get in trouble for sharing something that isn’t any of your business. But we have to get rid of this thinking that ‘snitches get stitches.’”

Training can help, Spittler says. “It’s not a lecture piece,” she says. “It’s interactive. It’s teachers and administrators coming together to do some role modeling, go through different scenarios and think through how they ought to handle something.”