Creating Safe and Civil Schools: Reaching Higher Academic Success

Estela Vasquez

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This report investigates the relationship between race and civility in public education. Feeling safe and embraced at school is critical to academic success. The main research questions investigated are:

  1. What levels of civility and incivility do Latino students experience at Walla Walla High School (Wa-Hi)?
  2. In what ways and for what reasons do Latino high school students experience incivility? How is this different or similar to non-Latino students?
  3. And, finally, what can schools best do to prevent these incidences from occurring?

Methods: The case study was Walla Walla High School located in Walla Walla, Washington. Data was gathered via three main sources. I conducted interviews with administrators and staff of Wa-Hi. Four focus groups were also conducted with different groups of students: Associated Student Body (ASB), the Science Bowl team, the Club Latino, and the advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) students. The study examined roughly equal numbers of Latino and non-Latino students. All the students kept a journal of their experiences, reflections and ideas concerning the types civility and incivility they witnessed at school.

Findings: My findings addressed students’ impressions and experiences according to four main categories: the general atmosphere of the school, peer interactions, teacher-student relationships and academic life, and models promoting civility. I found that Latinos experience a higher degree of incivility and a lower degree of civility compared to Non-Latinos. The language and jokes most commonly used among students are related to typical negative, racial stereotypes. The non-Latino students demonstrated “ownership” and confidence in their school life, while the Latinos students reported hesitation and unequal treatment. Racial identification was a strong influence on the way students experienced and interpreted their educational environment. Furthermore, the students’ comments suggested that the models for building civility often lack critical elements such as mental health services, community building, and the recognition that race matters.

Recommendations: First, a clear and comprehensive definition of civility in any school is necessary. Civility is more than a matter of one-to-one interactions. Key elements are the following: building a community that includes everyone, building collaborative relationships, celebrating and embracing all cultures, and making people aware of racial stereotypes and status issues. Second, schools need comprehensive models promoting civility. Parents’ involvement is necessary, as are mental health education and policies that are not “color-blind.”

Community Partners: Diana and Bill Erickson. Diana is the bilingual coordinator for the Walla Walla School District and Bill is the co-advisor of the Club Latino as well as the Natural Resource Specialist with Bonneville Power Administration. These two individuals’ dedication and passion has begun a necessary dialogue concerning civility.

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