Thursday, October 23, 2008

Only a third of SF teenagers say they feel safe in school

According to a story by Nanette Asimov in today's Chronicle,

Fewer kids in Napa County visit the dentist regularly than kids in other California counties. More San Francisco children teeter on the brink of depression than other children do. And for some reason, fewer parents in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties are reading to their very young children than parents living elsewhere.
These are among hundreds of illuminating and sometimes heart-wrenching facts revealed in a new county-by-county study of the well-being of California's youngest residents, published Wednesday by Children Now, a national nonprofit advocacy group based in Oakland.
By peering in at the details of children's health and happiness - and showing precisely where they are doing well or poorly - the group hopes to push counties to take action to improve the lives of children.

Most surprising to Lempert was that so many young people reported feeling disconnected from adults - and not particularly safe at their high school.

"I was really alarmed by that," Lempert said. "Especially in urban counties like San Francisco."

Slightly more than half of San Francisco's ninth- and 11th-graders (52 percent) say they feel "connected to an adult."

That's the lowest rate in the state, although students in about two-thirds of California counties feel almost as disconnected.

Feelings of safety also plunge when students reach high school.

In San Francisco, just a third of teenagers say they feel safe in school, compared with more than two-thirds in the younger grades. Similar trends show up in every Bay Area county and in most across the state.

"We're taking this quite seriously," said Trish Bascom, an associate superintendent in the San Francisco Unified School District who oversees health services. "We know that the strongest markers for success in school and life are caring relationships, high expectations from adults, and opportunities for meaningful participation in the community."

Bascom said the district began tracking students' emotional well-being two years ago and has discovered an alarming increase in students considering and planning suicide.

For the first time this year, she said, every city school is offering mental health services, supplemented by 50 mental-health interns who visit students who need them. Each high school also has a wellness center for the first time this year. Teachers - including those in high school - have been told to make students feel good about coming to school and even welcome them to class.

For the full story, click here.


  1. I know that stories like this give parents the creeps, especially parents of very young students, who must imagine that our high schools are some kind of Blackboard Jungle. But I think it is important to look at the big picture:
    "In San Francisco, just a third of teenagers say they feel safe in school, compared with more than two-thirds in the younger grades. Similar trends show up in every Bay Area county and in most across the state."

    Similar trends show up all across the state not, I think, because our schools are particularly unsafe place - in fact, I think SFUSD schools are often the safest places in their neighborhood - but rather because, for teenagers these days, life just plain feels unsafe.

    When I was a teenager back in the dark ages (when, my kids like to remind me, we rode our dinosaurs to get to school), we lived in a different kind of society, one which, if it did not properly value women as workers, or as equals to men in the workplace or even in the home, at least spoke of women in at worst a patronizing, or at best a respectful manner. In popular music, boys referred to their girls as "dream angels" or, more risque "devil with a blue dress on." They were not called "ho" or "bitch" or any of a number of other degrading terms heard all too often as lyrics these days. If you were 13, how would you feel hearing yourself referred to this way, over and over again, in song after song?

    And the rest of the media is no better. The images presented for teenage girls today to emulate range from the drunken antics of Lindsay Lohan to the apparently psychotic capers of Brittney Spears. Clothes for 4 years old feature bare midriffs, and 6 year olds want to dress like they are 22. How are young girls suposed to feel safe anywhere in a society which calls them "ho"s and then expects them to dress the part?

    Sorry to rant, but look around, people. Our schools are not cesspools of violence. We have the occasional student found with a weapon but they are not brandishing them at school, and they are usual quick to tell you that they carry it because they don't feel safe between school and home, not because they feel they need it at school.

    Yes, i know it is supposed to be the responsibility of the SFUSD to ensure the safety of students coming to and going home from school, but I've always wondered how it is anyone expects them to accomplish that? Isn't their job, really, to provide an education? How are they supposed to tackle crime on MUNI, or crime 100 feet from a student's front door? If the police can't stop crime, how are educators supposed to do it?

    We live in a society where we all know that at any minute, a building could blow up, or a deadly germ could be released into the ventilation system, or we could suddenly find that the water system has been poisoned. Random shootings seem to claim the lives of young people several times a week, and rarely is anyone brought to justice for it. The police don't seem to be able to protect our communities, and witnesses are afraid to come forward for fear of gang retribution. Young people observe all of this, and in a society where the older are supposed to protect the younger, they see that we are not able to provide them with that protection. Is it any wonder they feel unsafe, not just in SF but all across the state?

    These students who say they don't feel safe at school - I wonder if they were asked if they feel safer on the street corner of their own neighborhood, or riding MUNI, or at the mall? Personally, I suspect they take their anxiety with them wherever they go; I know I do.

  2. I think it is more the case that they don't feel safe coming or going to school, when they are crossing gang turf areas.

  3. This is something that won't change unless society as a whole changes. So, don't hold your breath.

    Tell me again why private schools aren't tempting.

  4. Hi everybody -- since I have two teens in SFUSD high schools I have to weigh in. My kids appear to be totally happy at school, which obviously wouldn't be the case if they feared for their safety (though in the case of one kid, he probably DOES fear getting chided for homework lapses).

    To be scrupulous about disclosure, my son did once have his iPod stolen from the band room, where he had foolishly left it while the room was being used as a dressing area for a large schoolwide performance, with lots of people in and out. But in terms of personal physical safety, they both (senior son and freshman daughter) appear to be happy as clams. Their friends appear to feel the same way.

    I was in the sunny quad at Balboa HS today at lunch for a special event, a fruit tasting and nutrition festival. The place was crammed with hulking teens -- including some I've known since elementary school -- crowding around tables sampling fruit and playing games like "Fruit Jeopardy." The notion that kids would feel unsafe just seemed very, very far away.

    It's not like nothing bad ever happens, but it's like your neighborhood, for those who live in a spot they like. You probably know of some crime or other horror that has happened there sometime, but day to day you feel safe and comfortable. Yet you probably hear all the time that urban residents are afraid to leave their homes and feel unsafe in their neighborhoods.

    That said, I can't answer for the survey result. It doesn't reflect the experience of my kids, their friends, or my friends' kids.

  5. caroline,

    I am pretty surprised. I think that your case is pretty unusual. I can tell you I have heard a couple of incidents already where there was bigotry or some physical altercation at my childs private lower school. I can only think that there are more incidents as kids get older.

  6. The public schools are usually all over any kind of instance of bigotry or any kind of physical altercation, especially at the elementary level. There are a variety of programs the schools use for anti-bullying curriculum, but racial epithets are treated just as seriously as shoving or hitting. By the time the students get to high school, this kind of thing has been extinguished in most of them.

    That's not to say they don't use "the N word" - they do, horrifyingly, as an endearment! - but even that seems to be on the wane compared to 4 years ago, when it was used by some students in every other sentence.

  7. Caroline's kids go to SOTA.

    Spend a day at Mission High, Caroline.

  8. There's a lot of "that's so gay!" in middle school. (I don't hear this at SOTA, where there are lots of out gay and lesbian students.) One boy in my daughter's crowd at Aptos used to use it all the time, and I would always tell him to cut it out. But he has joined at least two anti-Prop. 8 Facebook groups (he's my Facebook friend, so I've noted it).

    But I'm not saying there are never incidents -- they are just aberrations, in my experience. Again, with the neighborhood comparison: There was a mugging on my block once, and another time a daylight robbery when the homeowner (a single woman) was home (she was not injured). And once there was a weird arson -- a car was torched. But I and I would say all the neighbors still feel safe and view those as isolated incidents.

    My son's friend/classmate commutes to SOTA from Pacifica, where he was unhappy and bullied for being "different" in his small K-8 school. And he's really happy at SOTA. But he got mugged (not hurt) at the South San Francisco BART station on the way home.

  9. I was at Balboa today, 5:08, as described previously.

  10. 5:08, are you a teacher or parent or student at mission? i have friends who teach there, and i know lots of students in my neighborhood who go there, and my niece graduated from there 2 years ago, and none of them talk about their school like it feels unsafe. this is our neighborhood school. please don't talk about it like there is something wrong with it, and anyone who would spend a day there would know that. or are you just scared of a school because the students don't look like you??

  11. I'm surprised that the article said that there are mental health services in all schools. Yes, there are wellness centers in all of the high schools, but as far as I know, there are little or no mental health services in the elementary or middle schools (unless provided by an outside non-profit). Yes, there are LSPs at the schools who run groups, but they are not licensed clinicians (or interns under licensed clinical supervision). Does anyone have any idea what the district rep may have been referring to?

  12. Our ES has a MFT employed as a Learning Support Consultant. She runs social skills groups for the kids in the Special Day Classes and also anti-bullying groups for all kids along with participating in SST meetings.

  13. Since I got pooh-poohed some, here and when I posted about this on, I decided to look at the actual study report to see if I could determine what kids were surveyed.

    Well, I haven't yet gotten that far through the slow-loading PDF, but I did look at the county-by-county results for the question at hand -- whether high-schoolers feel safe at school. They do seem to put the Fear Factor in SFUSD high schools in a different light. Of California's 58 counties, there are only 7 in which MORE students feel safe at school than San Francisco, plus there are four tied with San Francisco. Thus there are 46 counties in California in which more high school students feel unsafe than in San Francisco. The county with the lowest percentage of high school students who feel safe is Lassen County, where only 19% of high-schoolers feel safe at school, compared with San Francisco County's 33%.

    Here are the counties where more students feel safe in high school than the number in San Francisco:
    Mariposa 34%
    Colusa 35%
    Placer 35%
    El Dorado 37%
    Marin 37%
    Inyo 40%
    Sierra 40%

    The ties -- in all these counties, 33% of high-schoolers feel safe at school, the same percentage as in San Francisco:

    Nevada 33%
    Orange 33%
    San Luis Obispo 33%
    Shasta 33%

    Go figure, but it sounds like most high school kids statewide report feeling unsafe at school, and San Francisco high-schoolers are among those who feel the MOST safe at school.

  14. No wonder this is such a problem, with an attitude like this. A recent survey done on sfgate shows that school safety was ranked dead last - I am assuming that it isn't students who voted on the poll, either.

  15. Those poll results are bizarre, as I said. I wonder if the question was written in some confusing way.

    I'm convinced that the reason school safety rated lowest of those issues in the Chron survey is that most people DON'T feel our schools are unsafe -- despite the Children Now survey.

  16. In glancing briefly at the Children Now report, it seems they are reporting on a whole lot of other issues and have an agenda going here.

    Not to pick on this particular report, but in most cases, it seems studies are not as neutral as one may think. The authors/researchers start with a point they are trying to prove and then go about proving it.

    Happens with conservatives, liberals, progressives, you name it.

    So like newspapers, one needs to read between the lines. Or perhaps, the analogy is more like statistics.

    By the way, I don't necessarily agree or disagree with the results in this report.

  17. I'm kind of shocked at all the parents who are shocked about the results here. When I was a budding gay in high school, every day was a miserable experience. I would literally rate my day by how many times I got verbally and physically harassed at high school. 10% off for every verbal assault ("hey, fag"), 20% off for physical assaults (slaps, punches, out and out unprovoked beatings). I can't tell you rarely it was that I got through the day with anything more than a 50% -- and a 100% day was like a blue moon. The day I was going to receive some kind of award my mom had me dress in a nice shirt and slacks and, completely unprovoked, one bully dragged me outside in the pouring rain and beat me to a pulp. I was so pissed off that instead of skipping the assembly I proudly went up on the stage and accepted the award with a bloody, muddy face! Sorry, folks, but I would have answered no to that question too. You all got to realize that middle and high schools are still very much cruel, vicious places.

  18. 7:34, I think the thing everyone forgets about these admirable nonprofits is that a lot of what they do is geared toward attracting funding. The worse the problem, the more effective the pitch to fund a solution.

    9:01, unfortunately schools (and other places) can still be hostile places for gay youth, and other students who might not fit into the mold. (I know that my kids' school is particularly gay-friendly -- but my son was telling me about discussions of Prop. 8 in which some of his schoolmates (especially minority kids) are really troubled about their parents' support of Prop. 8.) Anyway, I can definitely see why a gay student would feel unsafe. I can see how a studious geek might feel unsafe at a rowdy jockish school -- though when I think of jockish schools, the two that leap to mind are Sacred Heart and Riordan.

    But as an SFUSD high school mom, my observations about that survey are still:

    -- Based on my kids and their schoolmates and friends at different schools, most DO feel safe at school. There are some kids who seem to be targeted, at least for periods in their life -- such as a boy I know who was bullied at a small suburban middle school and is very happy at SOTA. That would be a relatively small number -- hardly accounting for 66%.

    -- Why would so many rural counties report MORE kids feeling unsafe at school than urban counties? More kids reported feeling unsafe at school in 46 California counties (out of 58) than reported that in SF county. That's still more baffling.

  19. 9:01, I'm really sorry you got gay-bashed in high school. I know this happens in many places in middle and high school. I have a close relative who is transgendered and I know from her that this issue affects so many youth whose gender presentation strays over certain strict lines of "normal" as defined narrowly in many communities.

    I will say that SF has to be one of the better places to be an LGBTQ youth. LGBTQ youth can find a safer place to go to school here. The services offered, the numbers of gay families in every school, the political culture overall, the anti-discrimination education that starts in elementary school--all different from what I knew growing up.

    My kids and their friends in middle and high school are universally shocked that Prop 8 is attracting votes around California. They are shocked by the ads. They think they are supremely stupid. This is not just at (no doubt) gay-friendly SOTA. This is at diverse schools in racial and ethnic and economic terms, and these friends come from all over the map. And yeah, some of them do disagree with their parents on the issue.

    And while SF may be a special case, fwiw I see growing acceptance among my younger cousins back East. Okay, they are not in the Bible Belt. But they are in the suburbs with much less exposure than my kids get to gay families in every classroom, in church, etc. Look at the poll numbers on gay issues--the under-45 crowd is way, way more liberal. The demographic shift is underway, and it WILL have an impact on how kids are treated in high school. Not that race-bashing has gone away, everywhere, but it is much less acceptable now. Same will be true for gay-bashing.

    Anyway, this is all just to say that LGBTQ youth probably will feel much safer in SF than in most districts anywhere else. I would hazard to say, much more so than in a rural district or even a suburban one. Diversity is what kids learn here, and they are familiar with it, and proud of it, and not afraid.