Certification Element: Data

Understanding the existing climate at a school is critical to identifying what challenges need to be addressed. Often, our casual observations of a school’s climate might give some clues, but may not detect more hidden problems. For instance, many teachers dramatically underestimate the rates of student-to-student bullying, especially hidden forms like social or relational bullying. Sometimes stereotypes also get in the way of real understanding. Sometimes people are more likely to see the problem that’s most recently been in the news. All of this makes it crucial to collect data from all members of a school community (including students, school staff and parents) about how they view their school climate and whether they feel safe, and to use that data to make decisions.


Gathering information, or data, on bullying and other school climate issues is critical to understanding the issues a school needs to address. This data also helps schools keep track of how things are improving as plans and programs are put into place. Schools must be mindful of the methods they use to collect data to ensure that what they collect is useful and meaningful.




School climate affects many participants in the school community, including the students, parents, school staff, and the outside community. Asking parents, teachers, students, and key community members is critical to get a broad picture of the issues and challenges a school might have.


It is often not necessary and not possible to survey every member of a given group (all students, all parents, etc.), although it is highly preferable to survey as many as possible to obtain an accurate assessment of the school environment. Schools often choose to collect data from a sample of each group. When doing so, schools should consider:


·         Making sure that key groups (racial groups, socioeconomic groups) are adequately represented, as they may experience school climate differently.

·         Assuring that each sample accurately represents each group

·         Asking a large enough sample to detect change over time

·         Expecting that a portion of the individuals you ask will choose not to participate


These data collection methods may be hard for a school to take on independently. Schools should consider consulting with experts who can help determine the number and composition of a sample necessary to gather meaningful information.




Understanding school climate goes well beyond simply asking students about their experiences with bullying. It is also critical to understand risk and protective factors such as:


·         Relationships between students and between adults and students

·         Participation and engagement at school

·         Feelings of safety and inclusion

·         Willingness to seek help if needed and to help others

·         Whether students are positively influenced by the school’s stated values and character education programs

·         Engagement in other negative behaviors such as substance use, vandalism or theft

·         Mental and physical health


Schools are encouraged not to create their own questions as they cannot be sure the items will be valid (actually measure what is intended) or reliable (measure the issue consistently across populations and time). There are many free surveys available that have been proven effective for schools to use in asking about school climate.




Data can be collected in a number of ways. It’s very important that schools use anonymous surveys – surveys that are submitted without names or other identifiers – to collect data. These are particularly useful because they:


·         Promote honest responses

·         Protect confidentiality/privacy

·         Allow for easy, quantifiable comparisons

·         Can be administered quickly and easily

·         Can easily be repeated over a number of data collection periods to show change over time as plans and programs are implemented


Sometimes schools will use qualitative methods such as structured interviews or focus groups that ask a small number of representatives to reflect on school climate issues. These methods are useful because they:


·         Allow for consideration of topics not thought of before data collection

·         Can explore more deeply why something happens

·         Can begin the process of developing a plan for change


For both survey and focus group data collection, schools should consult with their districts on rules regarding obtaining consent and maintaining privacy of collected data.




Gathering information is one of the first steps in creating a plan to address safe school issues. Data is crucial to understanding what needs to be addressed to create change. Further, data should be collected as plans are implemented, so that school administrators can determine how effective the plans are, and to allow for necessary adjustments to plans and programs.




Gathering information is not useful when it is not analyzed or shared. Schools should consider consulting with experts to ensure correct interpretation of the data. Consider these questions:


·         What is the school doing well?

·         What problems does the school community report are most prevalent?

·         Are these problems different for different groups?

·         Which issues seem most troubling to parents? To students? To school staff?

·         Which issues seem to affect people differently according to their age? Race? Gender? Sexual orientation? Other characteristics?


After exploring these questions, schools should share the data with the school community to help build buy-in and formulate a plan to improve the school climate.