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Virginia Journal of Education

by Dewey Cornell

Educators agree that school climate is a critical factor in school success. Knowing that, what disciplinary strategy is most effective in maintaining a safe learning environment in Virginia’s high schools: a strict one or a supportive one? In other words, should teachers and administrators take a strict, structured approach to discipline, or should they be more supportive and attempt to build positive relationships?

The best answer appears to be “yes.” Findings from the Virginia High School Safety Study (VHSSS) suggest that strict vs. supportive is a false dichotomy, and that the most successful schools combine the two approaches. 

Based on a four-year study of nearly 300 Virginia high schools, researchers at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education concluded that good schools are like good parents – they achieve a balance of structure and support that can be described as “authoritative.” According to the VHSSS, schools with authoritative characteristics are not only safer for students and teachers, they have a more positive learning environment, with lower suspension rates, higher performance on SOL tests, and fewer dropouts than other high schools.

The idea of an authoritative approach to school discipline is rooted in classic studies of child-rearing that identify four types of parents based on the degree of structure and support in their parent-child relationships. The most effective parents were termed authoritative because they were both structured—with high expectations for their children’s behavior—and supportive—through warm, close relationships. In contrast, authoritarian parents were highly structured and controlling but lacking in support, while permissive parents were supportive but imposed little structure for their children. Parents who were neither structured nor supportive were termed negligent.

In 2007, researchers at the Curry School decided to see whether the concepts of structure and support could be applied to the climate of Virginia high schools. We surveyed randomly-selected samples of approximately 25 ninth-grade students and 10 ninth-grade teachers in each high school, gathering data from more than 7,300 students and 2,900 teachers. The surveys measured aspects of the school climate associated with structure, such as perceptions of whether school rules were strictly and fairly enforced, and with support, such as whether students felt comfortable going to their teachers for help. We also measured student and teacher perceptions of the amount of bullying and teasing taking place at school. 

We chose ninth grade for the study because the first year is pivotal for high school success. Discipline and academic problems in freshman year often lead to a student’s decline and eventual failure to graduate.

School Climate and Bullying
According to an annual survey done by the state, Virginia principals at all three levels—elementary, middle and high school—identify bullying as the number one safety concern among students. More than 80 percent of elementary and middle schools, as well as 62 percent of high schools, reported that they have a bullying prevention program. Clearly, bullying is on the radar screen of Virginia schools. 

For the VHSSS, bullying was defined as “the use of one's strength or status to injure, threaten or embarrass another person. Bullying can be physical, verbal or social. It is not bullying when two students of about the same strength argue or fight.” Using this definition, approximately29 percent of Virginia ninth-graders reported being bullied at least once in the past month, although only about 8 percent reported that the bullying was as frequent as weekly, which is a typical threshold for classifying students as victims of bullying. The most common form of bullying reported by students was verbal, such as teasing and name-calling. Next most common was social, which involves getting others to ignore or exclude someone. Least common was physical bullying.

To measure the “bullying climate” of each school, students and teachers were asked a series of questions about the extent of bullying and teasing they observed. Bullying climate scores have proven to be remarkably good indicators of key academic outcomes. A dissertation by Sharmila Mehta, a recent Curry doctoral graduate, found that high schools with the highest levels of bullying had the lowest levels of ninth grade student engagement in learning and in school activities. It seems that where there was a great deal of bullying and teasing, students were less invested in their school. This suggested that bullying climate might also affect SOL test performance. Indeed, a new study by doctoral student Anna Lacey found that bullying climate predicted school passing rates for SOL tests, including Algebra 1, Earth Science and World History. Schools with the lowest levels of bullying had the highest passing rates.

Perhaps the most surprising finding, however, was that bullying climate in the ninth grade was predictive of graduation and dropout rates four years later. Schools with more extensive bullying and teasing in ninth grade had higher cumulative dropout rates by the end of 12th grade. We then compared the bullying climate to other known predictors of dropout rates, including the school’s poverty rate and performance on ninth grade SOL tests. Notably, bullying climate was as strongly associated with dropout rates as both of these conventional factors. One conclusion is that although Virginia educators are understandably concerned with helping their ninth grade students do well on SOL exams, there is evidence that bullying at school should not be overlooked as another factor in graduation success.

In light of these findings, a natural question is, “What kind of high school has the lowest levels of bullying?” The answer from the VHSSS was clear: Schools with an authoritative approach had substantially less bullying than other schools. Schools with the highest scores on measures of structure and support had the lowest bullying. Schools with high levels of structure, but not support (authoritarian), or high levels of support, but not structure (permissive), had intermediate levels of bullying. The schools with the lowest levels of both structure and support (negligent) had the highest levels of bullying. 

A major conclusion from this study, which was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, is that students are safest from bullying in authoritative schools where rules were strictly and fairly enforced, and where students felt that their teachers respected them and were concerned about them doing well in school. Significantly, these findings were consistent across schools of different size, racial composition and socioeconomic status.

School Climate and Teacher Victimization
Schools must be safe for teachers as well as students. The VHSSS survey of ninth grade teachers found relatively few instances of teachers being physically assaulted (4 percent), but more common experiences of being threatened (20 percent), receiving obscene remarks or gestures (43 percent), or being spoken to in a rude or disrespectful manner (84 percent) by students. Again, the degree of structure and support in the school climate was predictive of teacher victimization. In the most structured and supportive schools, teachers were least likely to be victimized by students. Of particular note, in schools where students reported that the rules were strict, but fair, the teachers reported lower rates of victimization.

As an alternative to the measure of teacher victimization, the researchers also examined school discipline records for threats of violence against teachers. In this analysis, schools with higher levels of support were consistently associated with lower threat rates. In other words, in schools where students felt that their teachers were sources of support (e.g., willing to help them if they had a problem or were a victim of bullying), teachers were less likely to be threatened by students. Again, these findings were consistent across schools of differing size and student composition.

School Climate and Student Suspensions
The use of school suspensions has come under considerable scrutiny in recent years. There has been national news media coverage of cases in which a student received a suspension that seemed disproportionate to the seriousness of his or her misbehavior. For example, in 2009 a Delaware first-grader was suspended and ordered to spend 45 days in a reform school for bringing his Cub Scout camping utensil to school, because it included a knife along with a fork and spoon. After a nationwide outcry, the school board rescinded the suspension.

Research has generally been critical of school suspension, too. Studies have found that students who are suspended from school do not respond by improving their behavior; on the contrary, they tend to become disengaged from school, their grades decline, and they are at increased risk of dropping out. Schools that use suspension frequently tend to have higher rates of student misbehavior and poor academic outcomes. 

The VHSSS found that Virginia high schools suspended an average of 15 percent of their students at least once during the school year, but that rates varied from 2.9 percent to a surprisingly high 58 percent of the student enrollment. In a study soon to be published in the American Educational Research Journal, UVa researchers found that the least authoritative schools had the highest suspension rates. Schools had the lowest suspension rates where their students reported that their teachers had high expectations and pressed them to work hard and do thoughtful work, yet at the same time those teachers seemed supportive and fair-minded. These findings were similar for both black and white students, and once again, the statistical analyses showed that these findings were not tied to differences in the composition of the student body. High schools of differing size, with different proportions of students from low income homes, and from both urban and rural locations, showed a consistent relationship between authoritative practices and low suspension rates.

Studies in other states have found that suspension rates are linked to dropout rates, and a dissertation by University of Virginia doctoral student Talisha Lee extended this observation to Virginia schools, too. Her findings, recently published in Education and Treatment of Children, found that schools which tended to use suspension as a disciplinary measure had significantly higher dropout rates than schools that used suspension less frequently. High suspension schools—those falling into the upper third of suspension rates—had dropout rates that were 56 percent higher than schools that fell into the lower third of suspension rates. These findings were especially notable because the effects of suspension practices were found for both white and black students and in schools with both high and low levels of poverty. Lee went further than previous studies to show that the effects of suspension rates could not be attributed to differences in student attitudes toward following school rules or engaging in aggressive behavior. As many education authorities have contended, suspension may be a practice that does more harm than good, because it often leads students to fall behind in their studies and become disengaged from school, eventually leading to dropping out.

Debates over school discipline have often pitted advocates of a “get tough” policy versus a “be supportive” orientation. Both of these approaches have limitations, because the strict disciplinarian approach can tend to be authoritarian and the supportive approach can be too permissive. However, these approaches are not mutually exclusive, and can be blended into an authoritative framework. Although correlational studies cannot prove causal relationships, the pattern of findings throughout the Virginia High School Safety Study makes a strong argument that Virginia educators should aspire to build an authoritative school climate. 

Cornell ( the Bunker Chair in Education and directs the Virginia Youth Violence Project in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. His current work is part of the University’s new Youth–Nex, The UVa Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. His primary collaborators on the Virginia High School Safety Study are Anne Gregory and Xitao Fan. The project was supported in part by a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the views in this article do not necessarily reflect policies or recommendations of the funding agency.


An Alternative to Zero Tolerance

Following the 1999 Columbine school shooting, one study by the FBI, and a second study by the Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education concluded that schools should adopt a threat assessment approach to violence prevention. Threat assessment is an approach used by the Secret Service to protect government officials and by many corporations to prevent workplace violence, but was virtually unknown in the field of education. It is a systematic process of identifying threatening behavior, evaluating the seriousness of the threat posed by the behavior, and then developing a suitable intervention designed to resolve the problem or conflict that underlies the threat.

In 2001 researchers at the Curry School’s Virginia Youth Violence Project developed a threat assessment model for schools. Called the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines, the model calls for multidisciplinary teams composed of administrators, mental health professionals, and law enforcement officers in each school to follow a seven-step decision tree that evaluates the seriousness of the threat. Then appropriate action can be taken, which can range from brief counseling to a comprehensive mental health assessment and law enforcement investigation.

A distinguishing feature of threat assessment is that it provides schools with an alternative to zero tolerance discipline practices. Under zero tolerance, schools apply the same punishment—typically some form of long-term suspension or expulsion—to any student who commits an infraction, without regard to the seriousness or severity of the case. For example, there are well-publicized cases in which students were suspended from school for infractions such as bringing a Cub Scout knife to school, drawing a picture of a gun, or shooting a paper clip with a rubber band.

The Virginia Guidelines have been adopted by thousands of schools throughout the United States and adapted for use in Germany, Sweden and Canada. According to the Virginia School Safety Audit Survey, nearly 60 percent of all Virginia public schools use them. A series of studies found that Virginia high schools using the Virginia Guidelines enjoyed more positive school climates, including more favorable student perceptions of their teachers as caring and concerned, and less bullying, as indicated both by student reports and school records. Perhaps most notably, schools using the threat assessment approach had approximately 50 percent fewer long-term suspensions during the school year, which supports the notion that schools have a viable alternative to zero tolerance.

School divisions interested in threat assessment training can contact the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the Curry School of Education at or (434) 924-8929.
—Dewey Cornell



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