A decade ago, only about half of Hawaii public school students surveyed by the Hawaii Department of Education said they felt safe at school, based on a questionnaire that touched on school environment, bullying, disciplinary actions and more.

Today, two-thirds of students in the latest School Quality Survey administered by DOE say they feel safe.

But the improvement was not uniform, and those schools where a high number of students still don’t feel safe also struggle with high chronic absenteeism and poor academic achievement.

By isolating high schoolers’ responses to the statements “I feel safe at school” and “I feel safe from the bullying behavior of students at my school,” a Civil Beat analysis of 2018-19 data found big disparities.

For instance, 44 of 198 high schoolers surveyed at Big Island’s Kohala High, or 22%, said they did not feel safe at school last year. Nor did 39 of 216 students, or 18%, surveyed at Pahoa High, also on the Big Island.

On the opposite end, only five of 90 high schoolers surveyed at the public charter school Hawaii Academy of Arts and Science, or 5%, said they felt “unsafe” at school. Among the traditional DOE schools, those with the highest percentage of high schoolers saying they felt safe were Moanalua High, Waipahu High and Waialua High on Oahu.

When it came to bullying, Kohala and Pahoa High had the highest percentages of students who said they did not feel safe, at 44% and 30% respectively. Also showing high percentages were Honokaa High on the Big Island and Oahu’s Farrington High, at roughly 20%.

Students felt safest from bullying at University Laboratory School, an Oahu charter school, and Oahu high schools Kaiser, Radford, Moanalua and McKinley.

Keoni Jeremiah, principal at Lab School, a public charter enrolling 443 students this year, said the school has focused on students’ social and emotional health in the past five years.

“We have implemented numerous (social and emotional learning) focused curriculum at every grade level and have encouraged our faculty to seek out professional development opportunities in this field,” he wrote in an email.

The K-12 school, which has among the highest high school graduation and college-going rates in the state, offers activities such as mindfulness exercises, “Random Acts of Kindness” activities, health and wellness fairs, a peer mentoring program, “Ohana Day” and yoga and meditation classes.

School Climate Surveys On Rise

The school climate surveys are becoming more widely distributed throughout Hawaii’s public school system as social-emotional learning and inclusion become more integrated into Board of Education policy and curriculum as a measure of student success.

Twelve years ago, such surveys were taken by only about 32,000 students — the same year that only one in two students reported feeling safe at school.

In an update to its 2011 to 2018 strategic plan, the DOE recognized those dismal early results and made increasing the percentage of students who feel safe in school a priority.

By 2016-17, 54,855 students took the survey — which is administered once a year at school, in the fall, by a classroom teacher or school-designated proctor, according to DOE.

Last school year, a total 103,905 students in 3rd through 12th grades took the 2018-19 School Climate Survey across all 256 traditional DOE schools and most of the 36 public charter schools. Civil Beat’s analysis focused on the 36 DOE high schools and 28 additional multi-level schools and public charters that enroll grades 9-12.

School climate is one of 13 indicators of student success in DOE’s 2017 to 2020 strategic plan. As the department works on a strategic plan for the next 10 years, it plans to build on early community feedback that calls for more peer counseling, additional training for teachers in subjects such as trauma counseling and a greater presence of kupuna, or elders, on school campuses.

Research points to a strong correlation between a positive school climate and academic outcomes.

“Students who feel like they belong achieve at higher rates on every study you see,” said Janine Jones, director of the School Psychology Program at University of Washington’s College of Education.

Nationally, school climate surveys are increasingly common, Jones added. This data has been “critical” in offering feedback to parents who want to know more about the culture of their neighborhood school, she said.

Such survey data can be most useful, Jones added, when it’s broken down to show variations among subgroups based on race, gender or socioeconomic class.

One Washington state school district, for instance, found that boys of color — black and brown youth — were most likely to feel no one at school would notice or care if they weren’t there, she said.

The Hawaii high schools in which a greater proportion of students said they felt unsafe at school tend to see lackluster results in other areas.

At Kohala High, which enrolls about 265 students, 14% of students surveyed, or 28 of 198, said they “strongly disagreed” that they felt safe at school while 32 of 198, or 16%, “strongly disagreed” they felt safe from bullying.

These statistics are similar to the year before.

The northern Big Island school, which this year got a new principal who couldn’t be reached for comment, saw its student performance in language arts, science and math improve in the past couple of years. But the school’s chronic absenteeism rate shot up 10 percentage points between 2016 and 2018, from 29% to 40%, according to its latest Strive-HI report.

Schools showing low or declining rates of students feeling safe are offered support from DOE to help “strengthen their climate, encourage positive behavioral expectations, and implement interventions,” according to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani.

“In addition, social and emotional learning and character education programs can help foster a sense of safety,” she said.

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