“Sobering” data shows only 36% of Salem’s middle, high schoolers feel welcome at school

Nearly two in three middle and high school students feel like they don’t belong at Salem schools, with the numbers significantly lower for non-binary students and those with emotional or behavioral disorders.

That’s according to a district survey of 6,680 elementary and 10,297 secondary students conducted in the spring, which asked them several questions intended to gauge how welcome they feel at school, and what schools can do better.

“This is sobering. I’ve been in tears most of this,” school board Director Lisa Harnisch said. “I think it’s a call to action for our community.”

Chris Moore, the district’s director of mental health, presented data from the survey at a June 25 school board work session.

Just 36% of middle and high school students reported a sense of belonging at school, a number unchanged from a survey last fall and up slightly from 32% last spring. 

Surveys of third to fifth graders showed 58% felt they belonged at school, the same share as last spring.

For non-binary middle and high school students, just 15% felt they belonged at school. One quarter of students with emotional and behavioral disorders felt they belonged.

“It’s not okay,” Moore said of the non-binary student number during the meeting. “Kids are watching us and how we treat each other in these moments of need … not that we have to share necessarily the same opinion, but we do need to share the same values that every student has the right to feel like they belong.”

The Salem-Keizer School Board adopted a five-year growth plan in the fall, which calls for the district to improve the share of students who feel welcome.

“You are the first district in Oregon to make this a priority,” Moore told the board. 

It’s the sole non-academic goal the board set. The plan also calls for improvements to graduation rates, attendance and reading proficiency. 

Questions to gauge belonging included whether students feel people at school understand them as a person, how much respect classmates showed them and how connected they feel to adults at school.

By 2028, the board’s plan says 38.5% of secondary students and 67.5% of elementary students should feel they belong at school.

Moore said compared to other urban, high-poverty districts around the U.S. that survey students on belonging, Salem-Keizer ranks in the bottom half for elementary schools and the bottom third for secondary schools.

District leaders and the board see the measure as a key component of academic success, since students who feel unwelcome or targeted at school are less likely to go to class or learn while there.

“Students who feel like they belong attend more,” Moore said at the meeting.

As Salem has seen an increase in young people involved in shootings and violence since the Covid pandemic, the issue of belonging at school has also become a focal point of discussions about improving youth and community safety. 

Community leaders who work with young people say students who feel welcome and safe at school are less likely to seek out peer groups engaging in violence or gangs for a sense of validation.

Students report bullying, violence, greater need for counseling

On open-ended questions, students surveyed reported a wide range of challenges.

One asked students what they wished teachers knew about them, eliciting responses ranging from their pets to thoughts of suicide and not having anyone at home who loved them.

“I have really bad anxiety. And I live in a very dangerous spot (swat team has been there a few times) so I really cant get sleep at night because im scared,” one student wrote.

“I might look sad sometimes, but that’s just my face,” another wrote.

The survey also asked students about how schools could improve. Responses called for more time with counselors, more engaging projects and assignments in class, more clubs and chances for students to get out of their comfort zone and for people to be “decent human beings” to each other.

“People not calling me names and singling me out like I’m an alien just because I’m LGBTQ+. I can’t help who I am. Just be kind,” one student wrote.

“If teachers and other staff were way nicer to each other and didn’t take out their frustrations on us. They always seem stressed out,” another said.

The data showed some bright spots. In middle and high school, Indigenous students, autistic students and sixth graders reported higher senses of belonging than the average.

Students in the district’s Career Technical Education Center, a magnet program for high school juniors and seniors, reported a significantly higher sense of belonging overall, Moore said. He attributed the number to the hands-on curriculum and opportunities for students to see the relevance of their school work immediately.

Board Chair Karina Guzmán Ortiz asked Moore how the district can assess what’s working well to help students feel welcome and replicate it. Moore said schools that have clubs and groups run by engaged staff shows up in the data.

“Those directly contribute to student well-being and higher levels of belonging,” he said.

Robust behavioral and mental health services are key, he said, as is clear support from the Salem community and its leaders about the importance of mental health.

“We’ve never had a generation of kids be so transparent and authentically proud to talk about who they are and what it is that they need. And it’s alarming for some folks sometimes and that’s okay. The job of kids is to push us to grow and invite us into new ways of being,” Moore said. “But when it’s very very clear that as a community we signal that belonging is important, we signal that mental health and behavioral health is important …that tells kids that we’re paying attention.”

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.