This week, parents, staff and students in each of the four Laguna Beach schools were sent an email link to a confidential survey about school culture, fulfilling a pledge by the superintendent to assess the learning environment in the wake of a recent racially charged incident.
The 16-question online survey includes queries about bullying and harassment. The survey asks to what degree harassment is encountered by students based on family income, sexual orientation, physical attributes and the ability to speak the English language. The answers are recorded on a six-point scale ranging from strong agreement to disagreement and with the option “I don’t know.”
The results are recorded and analyzed by Hanover Research, an independent education research firm hired for $36,500 to conduct the survey. The link will remain active until March 29 and results finalized by May, said district spokeswoman Leisa Winston.
Incidents involving high school students have forced school leaders to re-examine attitudes and practices in the schools and question whether existing safeguards such as anti-bullying rules and athletic codes of conduct are sufficient.
“I think it is a good catalyst for conversation that families might otherwise not have,” said parent Kay Metis, whose son endured what she described as an anti-Semitic attack at Thurston Middle School last May.
Metis said her son was pushed to the ground by a classmate, who threw quarters at him and said “fetch Jew.” The mother said school officials adequately addressed the matter. The boy who committed the assault is no longer enrolled in the district, according to Metis.
“When it happens, the emotions you feel are heartbreaking. Anger, sadness and this mother-bear thing takes over. It took a couple of days before I could address it effectively,” said Metis, who suspects her son will remember the incident for life.
Some parents including Laguna Beach High parent Maurice Possley said he did not receive an email notification about the survey and preferred not to comment on it, he said in an email reply.
Possley and his wife Kathleen Falsani complained publicly that their home was targeted for a hate crime last December because their son, Vasco, is black. Five students involved served a week-long suspension from school and sports activities, according to parents and the school athletic director. The students were identified from a grocery surveillance video where they are seen buying a watermelon and admitted to investigators their role, Falsani and Possley said in an earlier interview. The suspension is the maximum penalty allowed under the district’s policies for students who engage in harassment or bullying.
Metis said she too sometimes fails to receive a weekly newsletter from the school principal and suggested that the district should use its automated phone message system to better ensure that the survey is completed.
Another local district undertook a similar climate survey for a different reason, but made changes as a result of the findings.
A second climate survey by the Irvine Unified School District, also conducted by Hanover Research, revealed that stress was an issue with students and teachers, said Alan Schlichting, director of student support. This school year, the district added a mental wellness coordinator to the staff and increased partnerships with UC Irvine to offer more teacher training in mental wellness, he said.
And this year more students made use of counseling services, said Schlichting, in the wake of two student fatalities, one by suicide and another in a car accident.
Results of the Laguna survey will be shared with board members at a future board meeting, Winston said.