Volume 1, Issue 2 • Spring 2012

Table of Contents


General Strain Predictors of Arrest History Among Homeless Youths from Four United States Cities

Students’ Perceptions of School Learning Climate in a Rural Juvenile Detention Educational Facility

Transitions of Truants: Community Truancy Board as a Turning Point in the Lives of Adolescents

Family Warmth and Delinquency among Mexican American and White Youth: Detailing the Causal Variables

Polygraph Testing for Juveniles in Treatment for Sexual Behavior Problems: An Exploratory Study

The 10-Question Tool: A Novel Screening Instrument for Runaway Youth

Applying a Developmental Lens to Juvenile Reentry and Reintegration

Commentary: Assessing Client Outcomes in Youth Justice Services: Current Status and Future Directions

Students’ Perceptions of School Learning Climate in a Rural Juvenile Detention Educational Facility

Justin McDermott, Joan Scacciaferro, Joseph D. Visker, and Carolyn C. Cox
Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri

Justin McDermott, Department of Health Science, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri; Joan Scacciaferro, Department of Health Science, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri; Joseph D. Visker, Department of Health Science, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri; Carolyn C. Cox, Department of Health Science, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Carolyn C. Cox, 2123 Pershing Building – HES, Truman State University, Kirksville, MO 63501; E-mail: ccox@truman.edu

Keywords: Learning climate, juvenile j ustice, juvenile detention, school environment, evaluation


A positive school learning climate is associated with prevention of negative behaviors and improved academic success. At-risk students in detention need supportive learning climates for school success. Rural students in detention face special risks, and detention administration and reform is more challenging in rural than in other jurisdictions. The purpose of this study was to assess students’ perceptions of learning climate in a rural residential juvenile detention educational facility. Seventy-three middle and high school-aged adjudicated students housed in a juvenile detention center in rural Northeast Missouri participated in a learning climate survey to assist in improving educational practices in their facility.

Students responding to this survey gave the highest mean score to the learning climate dimension of Caring and Fair Staff, and the lowest to Classroom Order—more than one-half of respondents reported that students were disrespectful to each other and used fighting to settle differences. Respondents whose mothers have less than some college education were significantly less likely than others to perceive the overall learning climate as positive.

Based on our findings, facility administrators implemented three tiered interventions focused on positive student growth to strengthen weak learning climate dimensions as part of a new detention reform initiative being introduced in the facility.


Benefits of a positive school learning climate for students

The personality of a school may be thought of as the school’s learning climate. School learning climate—the feel, atmosphere, tone, ideology, or environment of a school (Hoy, 2002)—includes the values, attitudes, and feelings of both students and staff. A constructive learning climate is one that insures physical and psychological safety, recognizes the needs and success of the individual, and supports learning and positive interpersonal relationships. A school learning climate should exhibit inclusiveness, nurturance, and a community feeling that makes students feel appreciated and recognized by one, if not more, adults in the school. Schools should, ideally, be free from stresses and fears that inhibit problem-solving and student development (Educational Development Center, 2001). Creating this environment not only requires the involvement of students, administrators, and teachers, but also nutrition service workers, school counselors, school nurses, and custodial and maintenance staff (Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, 2006).

Improved school connectedness, school satisfaction, and student conduct are linked to higher-quality school climates (Loukas, Suzuki, & Horton, 2006). Schools with low rates of bullying are also linked to positive school climates, as are high levels of parental involvement and satisfaction with the schools’ discipline programs (Ma, 2002). Positive climates and learning environments seem to contribute to higher academic achievement, higher standardized test scores (MacNeil, Pratter, & Busch, 2009; Hoy, 2002), and higher levels of student self-esteem (Ma, 2002). In addition, school learning climate relates to students’ drug abuse behavior: As teachers’ interest in a positive school climate increases, the percentage of students who abuse drugs decreases (LaRusso, Romer, & Selman 2008).

Importance of a positive learning climate for students in juvenile detention educational facilities

Just as a positive learning climate is critical for promoting student learning and positive behaviors in the traditional school system, a responsive school learning climate is extremely important for fostering social and academic learning in the juvenile detention educational setting (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2006). Students in this setting are at high risk for school dropout, drug and alcohol abuse, and learning and behavioral disabilities (Meisel, Henderson, Leone, & Cohen, 1998). Compared with non-detained students, those in secure care are lower in academic achievement and may have higher rates of behavioral and mental health difficulties (Gaganon & Barber, 2010). These students also possess a greater willingness to disobey rules and fewer social or developmental assets (Butts, Bazemore, & Meroe, 2010). The setting itself possesses unique challenges such as limited time, isolation from the home school district, and lack of tailored curricular and staff resources for academic and social remediation (Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006).

Because a positive school climate leads to improved academics and student self-concept, and many state education agencies recognize this link (Cohen 2006), it is essential for schools, especially those in the juvenile detention educational setting, to create and maintain excellent learning climates. In this type of educational setting, abused, neglected, or adjudicated students are enrolled in a structured residential educational and therapeutic program. In accredited programs in such settings, students receive personal counseling, life-skills training, and educational classes. Because of their additional risk factors, a supportive climate that encourages learning and personal growth is imperative for students housed in these facilities (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2006). Specifically, those in the early stages of delinquency need a learning climate that promotes pro-social engagement and positive youth development; those with more serious problems need additional resources and therapeutic interventions (Butts, 2008). Identifying strengths and working to improve weaknesses in learning climate in juvenile detention educational facilities can create a more positive environment for all who live and work at the facility (Cox, Visker, & Hartman, 2011).

Challenges to improving learning climate in rural juvenile detention educational facilities

The challenge of rural juvenile detention

Approximately two-thirds of communities in the United States are considered rural or non-metropolitan (Mendel, 2008). Although risk factors for delinquency among urban students cluster around school, peer, and neighborhood, risk factors for delinquency among rural students tend to cluster around low socioeconomic level, single-parent family, and substance abuse (Mallett, 2010). School learning climate seems to be predictive of the overall academic performance of rural students (Tatum, 2009), as well as of the educational aspirations of rural students from high poverty areas (Irvin, Meece, Byun, Farmer, & Hutchins, 2011).

Rural students enter the juvenile justice system at rates similar to those of urban and suburban students, but rural students are more likely to be poor, less educated, and abuse alcohol and other drugs at higher rates. Administration of juvenile justice and detention is also more complicated in the rural areas. Attempting to transform policy, change the learning climate or environment, or make other significant detention reform initiatives in rural communities is challenging. The challenges include limited capacity in staffing, expertise, and service providers, as well as geographic isolation, high transportation costs, and small budgets (Mendel, 2008).

Rural students deserve effective juvenile detention educational facilities and services even if delivery is hampered by budget, staffing, and geographical constraints. Many detention facilities in rural communities are now participating in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to decrease delinquent behaviors and promote alternatives to secure detention. This initiative uses specific, model strategies to change facility policy and practice. Facilities purposefully assess their operational systems by collecting and analyzing data and then using the results to improve conditions (Mendel, 2009). In this initiative, researchers assess learning climate and use the results to improve educational policy and practice.

The challenge of effectively educating students in juvenile detention

More than 150,000 juvenile offenders are placed in residential detention educational facilities each year. A very small percentage of these students are treated in high quality facilities that use proven, evidence-based educational interventions (Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011). Facility quality is positively related to academic achievement and school learning climate (Uline & Tschannen-Moran, 2008). Effective treatment programs focus on rehabilitative, strength-based interventions for these mostly non-traditional learners (Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011). Educationally, most juvenile detention centers assist students in obtaining their high school diplomas and use state or district curricula and assessments to reach this objective (Gaganon, Barber, VanLoan, & Leone, 2009). To achieve this goal, the learning climates of most successful alternative education programs make students feel that teachers enforce rules fairly, treat them with respect, and support their social and academic progress (Quinn, Poirrer, Faller, Gable, & Tonelson, 2006).

Although the behavioral and educational goals and philosophies of each facility may differ, there are effective treatment programs validated for use in this setting (Henggeler & Schoenwald, 2011). Many at-risk students are non-conventional, tactile learners who need movement or activity to allow them to develop connections between academic concepts and their application. For example, moving from a teacher-centered climate to a learner-centered climate allows at-risk students to participate and experience their education in a ”hands-on” manner (Kaufman, et. al, 2008). Matching teaching approaches to student learning styles also improves academic achievement in this population (Dunn & Dunn, 2008). Effective programs allow students to apply what they learn to real-world situations, supporting teachers’ use of research-based instructional practices (Ruzzi & Kraemer, 2006).

Learning climate assessments and improvement strategies

The learning climate as part of the facility’s operational system should, therefore, be continuously assessed and improved (Educational Development Center, 2001). Over the years, researchers have developed and tested organizational and learning climate questionnaires and surveys to assess the learning environment of schools. Results seem to point to many factors that contribute to creating a positive learning climate and generally include: social-emotional factors; physical order and safety; collaboration and communication; feeling of school as community; peer norms; partnerships between school and home; and the level at which a school functions as a learning community (Cohen, 2006).

Once researchers analyze the assessment data, administrators should use the results to improve students’ feelings of social and emotional safety within the school environment. Interventions should focus on improving the social and emotional factors that strongly influence student learning, since a positive learning climate promotes social and emotional growth (Zins & Elias, 2006). Specifically, researchers recommend planned and coordinated interventions based on positive growth and resiliency models to prevent risky behaviors (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2006).

Strategies and conditions to create positive learning climates in all schools and juvenile detention facilities

After completing a learning climate assessment, school administrators should plan interventions to maintain strong areas and strengthen weak areas within their facilities. In general, the conditions recommended for a positive learning climate are: safe, orderly classrooms and grounds (maintain clean classrooms, sufficient supplies, and low noise levels); positive interactions between and among students and staff (allow staff and students to participate in decision-making); a sense of community connectedness and belonging (encourage interactions that are caring and respectful so all feel valued); and high academic expectations (monitor progress and recognize achievement). As already mentioned, students in schools or facilities with more positive learning climates perform better academically and exhibit greater emotional well-being than students in schools or facilities with less positive learning climates (Tableman, 2004).

One strategy to achieve these optimal conditions uses the positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) approach. PBIS is a three-tiered approach for the prevention of negative behaviors. Used as an alternative to punishment-based approaches, PBIS has demonstrated success in traditional school settings, and researchers recommend PBIS for use in detention settings (Jolivette & Nelson, 2010). In secure care settings, PBIS seems to improve overall school learning climate as well as specific learning climate factors, such as academic achievement and behavior (see Figure 1). The first tier of this approach includes strategies to promote social and emotional learning and Positive Youth Development (Jolivette & Nelson, 2010).

Figure 1. PBIS Levels and Examples of Interventions

In the juvenile detention setting, researchers recommend that deficit-based intervention approaches be replaced with interventions based on the new intervention framework of Positive Youth Development, which includes service-learning projects, academic support programs, and life skills curricula (Butts et al., 2010). Students exposed to more positive, supportive relationships and experiences tend to report fewer academic and behavioral difficulties. Exposing students to such supports during the early stages of behavioral problems may prevent delinquency and additional entries into the juvenile justice system (Butts, 2008). The strengths- and protective factors-based framework of Positive Youth Development could move students toward more pro-social behavior and away from delinquency. Positive Youth Development-based interventions can be used, in addition to traditional treatment approaches, to connect students with positive supports, role models, and experiences that promote resiliency (Butts et al., 2010; National Conference of State Legislatures, 2010).

Instruction in social and emotional learning as a universal or first-tier strategy in the PBIS framework may also prevent behavior problems. Students learn to successfully mange emotions, demonstrate caring relationships, and make healthy decisions by practicing social and emotional learning skills at home and school. Learning the competencies of self and social awareness, decision-making, self-management, and relationship building through evidenced-based, cost-effective social and emotional learning curricula and programs improves students’ feelings of safety and self-confidence (Zins & Elias, 2006). Interestingly, a positive learning climate enhances social and emotional learning, and social and emotional learning enhances a positive learning climate (Zins & Elias, 2006).

For the 15%–20% of students whose needs cannot be met with the first tier of the PBIS approach, the second tier includes strategies to prevent recurring problems, such as culturally responsive counseling groups or mentoring programs (Figure 1). For the 1%–5% of students who need even more comprehensive assistance to adjust in the school setting, intensive third-tier interventions include the use of counseling and family therapy (Figure 1). As PBIS matures as a systems change strategy and more technical assistance becomes available in the juvenile detention setting, we hope more programs and facilities will implement the changes that have demonstrated improvements in learning climate and student outcomes (Jolivette & Nelson, 2010).


As explained above, a positive school learning climate is associated with the prevention of negative behaviors, the promotion of social and emotional learning, and improved academic success. At-risk students in detention need positive learning climates for school success (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2006). Because rural students in detention face special risks, detention administration and reform is more challenging in rural jurisdictions than it is elsewhere (Mendel, 2008). The purpose of this descriptive, preliminary investigation was to assess learning climate in a rural, residential juvenile detention educational facility from the students’ perspective. Administrators have used the results of this study to improve educational policy and practice as part of a new Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative being introduced in the facility.



We asked 73 middle and high school-aged adjudicated students from three rural counties housed in a juvenile detention center in Northeast Missouri during the 2008-2009 school year to participate in a learning climate survey. We chose this facility because it faced almost all of the main challenges confronting rural detention reform: geography of three expansive counties, lack of public transportation, limited finances, and a shortage of staff. The function of this 16-bed, short-term facility built in 2000 is to provide education and rehabilitation services for offenders and their families by following a strengths-based approach.

With a secure detention unit and a residential treatment unit, the goal of the program is to provide a safe environment of care and education using clinical and non-clinical interventions. In secure detention, youth who are alleged to have committed a law violation are detained and remain in detention until their case is heard. In the secure detention unit, educators and therapists provide educational and counseling services to improve behavior management. In the residential treatment unit, educators and therapists provide educational and social services (including inpatient psychiatric treatment, transition to home services, and support) to youth with significant behavior problems and those who have been abused or neglected (Second Judicial Circuit Juvenile Division, 2011).

Most students in the facility are either victims of child abuse and neglect, delinquency cases, or have committed status offenses. Certified teachers provide individualized, computer-assisted, and small group instruction following the curriculum, textbooks, and lesson materials provided weekly by the home school district. When students complete their treatment and educational interventions, teachers inform them and their families about the transition program to home that the facility offers. The facility provides food and rent services, as well as follow-up family counseling and intensive support services, to assist with the transition (Second Judicial Circuit Juvenile Division, 2011).


After institutional IRB approval and consent by a judicial circuit judge, juvenile detention center administrator, parent/guardian, and the students themselves, all 73 students (100% response rate) volunteered to participate in the survey. They completed the survey during a convenient time – their routine exit interview at the end of the school year.


We used Creating a Great Place to Learn – Student Survey, 2006 (Search Institute, 2006), based on the Developmental Assets Framework, to assess student perceptions of facility learning climate. The survey contained 61 questions assessing demographics and 11 dimensions of school learning climate in the following categories: Caring and Fair Staff, Parental Support and Achievement Values, Student Voice, Safety, Classroom Order, Academic Expectations, Peer Academic Influence, Active Learning, Sense of Belonging, Motivation, and Academic Self-Efficacy (Search Institute, 2006). We asked respondents to rate positive learning climate descriptions in these dimensions on a five-point, Likert-type scale, ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5).

Internal consistency of the instrument was acceptable, as Cronbach’s alpha for all but one of the coefficients (91%—Peer Academic Influence was the exception) was 0.60 or higher, and 7 of the 11 dimensions (64%) had alphas of 0.70 or higher. Test-retest reliability suggested adequate stability for using the instrument to measure changes in learning climate over time (Search Institute, 2006). In the present study, the alpha coefficient (Cronbach’s alpha) for the entire survey was 0.935, confirming internal consistency reliability.


We used descriptive statistics (including measures of central tendency and dispersion) to describe respondent demographics and composite scores for each learning climate dimension. We limited inferential analyses to a series of independent sample t-tests comparing: (1) Gender, (2) Race/ethnicity, (3) Mother’s highest level of education, and (4) Father’s highest level of education among all learning climate dimensions. We conducted a Bonferonni adjustment to adjust for Family Wise Error Rate, given the large number of comparisons analyzed. We conducted all analyses using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) 17.0.



All respondents reported their grade level in school as below 11th grade. The majority (71.2%) reported their gender as male, their race/ethnicity as White (83.6%), and English as their primary language (97.3%). See Table 1 for a complete summary of demographics.

Table 1. Description of Demographic Data

Demographic Frequency (n) Percent (%) Demographic Frequency (n) Percent (%)
Gender     Mother’s Highest Level of Education    
  Male 52 71.2 Less than some college 39 53.4
  Female 19 26.0 Other 34 46.6
  Missing 2 2.7 Missing 0 0.0
Race/Ethnicity     Father’s Highest Level of Education    
  White 61 83.6 Less than some college 44 60.3
  Other 12 16.4 Other 29 39.7
  Missing 0 0.0 Missing 0 0.0
English as the main language          
  Yes 71 97.3      
  No 1 1.4      
  Missing 1 1.4      


Individual Learning Climate Perceptions

Most ‘positive’ learning climate perceptions

More than one-half of respondents ‘Strongly Agreed’ that school staff takes academics seriously (61.6%), doing well in school is important for their future (56.2%), it is important for them to do really well in school (60.3%), and their parents expect them to do the best they can in school (53.4%). In addition, the majority of respondents ‘Agreed’ that they feel free to make suggestions to administration (56.2%), can suggest topics for discussion (50.7%), staff gives students of different races/cultures equal respect (50.7%), students of different races/cultures get along (52.1%), students feel safe at school (50.7%), students always work up to their ability (53.4%), and their parents help them with their homework when they ask (52.1%).

Many also ‘Agreed’ that students are treated fairly by staff (42.5%), and teachers here really care about them [the students] (41.1%). Nearly one-half (49.3%) of respondents ‘Strongly Agreed’ or ‘Agreed’ that their parents ask them about their homework, and the majority (83.5%) of respondents either ‘Strongly Agreed’ or ‘Agreed’ that their parents try to get them to do their best.

Most ‘negative’ learning climate perceptions

More than one-half (56.1%) of respondents either ‘Disagreed’ or ‘Strongly Disagreed’ that they try to settle differences without fighting, that most students are well behaved even when they are not being watched (63.0%), that students treat each other with respect (58.9%), and that if another student is bullied, other students stop it (53.4%). However, many (50.7%) respondents indicated teachers care only about smart students.

Learning Climate Dimensions

Highest mean scores were found among the learning climate dimensions of Caring and Fair Staff (M = 40.31; SD = 7.05), Safety (M = 27.32; SD = 4.28), and Sense of Belonging (M = 25.00; SD = 5.95). Classroom Order yielded the lowest mean score (M = 6.66; SD = 2.84). Please refer to Table 2 for measures of central tendency and dispersion for individual climate dimensions as well as the survey total.

Table 2. Measures of Central Tendency and Dispersion for Climate Dimensions

Climate Dimension n Mean SD Range Min–Max Scores Possible Scores
Caring & Fair Staff 73 40.31 7.05 31.00 20.00–51.00 11.00–55.00
Parental Support 73 19.42 3.69 12.00 13.00–15.00 5.00–25.00
Student Voice 73 13.32 3.36 12.00 8.00–20.00 4.00–20.00
Safety 73 27.32 4.28 24.00 13.00–37.00 8.00–40.00
Classroom Order 73 6.66 2.84 12.00 3.00–15.00 3.00–15.00
Academic Expectations 73 15.60 2.13 10.00 10.00–20.00 4.00–20.00
Peer Academic Influence 73 10.22 2.57 11.00 4.00–15.00 3.00–15.00
Active Learning 73 11.41 2.79 19.00 16.00–35.00 7.00–35.00
Sense of Belonging 73 25.00 5.95 19.00 16.00–35.00 7.00–35.00
Motivation 73 16.62 2.97 11.00 9.00–20.00 4.00–20.00
Academic Self-Efficacy 73 11.41 2.79 9.00 6.00–15.00 3.00–15.00
Total Survey 73 103.84 28.57 103.84 145.6–249.00 55.00–275.00


Learning Climate Dimensions Comparisons

After adjusting for Family Wise Error Rate, three independent sample t-tests yielded statistically significant results in the learning climate dimensions of Caring and Fair Staff, Student Voice, and for the survey total score. In all instances, students whose mothers have more than “some college” education scored significantly higher than those whose mothers have “less than some college” education (Table 3). No other t-tests yielded statistically significant differences in Learning Climate Dimensions among the categories of Gender, Race/ethnicity, Mother’s highest level of education, and Father’s highest level of education.

Table 3. Independent Sample t-test Results

Caring and Fair Staff
  t-value df Sig. (2-tailed) Mean Difference SE
Mother’s Education -3.874 71.000 .000 -5.86134 1.51282
Student Voice
  t-value df Sig. (2-tailed) Mean Difference SE
Mother’s Education -4.014 71.000 .000 -2.87858 .71713
Total Survey
  t-value df Sig. (2-tailed) Mean Difference SE
Mother’s Education -3.793 71.000 .000 -23.34991 6.15527



Assessment of learning climate

In addition to this facility being assessed periodically for learning climate level, we believe similar facilities should conduct learning climate surveys from time to time. Students assigned to juvenile detention educational facilities are at high risk for social, behavioral, and academic problems. Rural youth are at even greater risk for drug abuse and poor academics. And as we have mentioned, positive, constructive learning climates seem to support improved behaviors and academic achievement but require the involvement of all members of the school community, including students, faculty, staff, and parents. One way to begin to get the entire juvenile detention educational facility involved in the process of building a positive learning climate is to conduct a learning climate survey and share the results with all stakeholders. Many education agencies recommend these types of assessments because of the strong relationship between a positive learning climate and improved academic achievement and positive health behaviors (Educational Development Center, 2001). Once results are shared, those involved can make plans to maintain program strengths and improve program weaknesses. All members of the juvenile detention educational facility can be involved in implementing interventions, which can strengthen the facility’s functioning as a learning community.

Strategies and conditions to create a positive learning climate in this facility

Learning Climate Perceptions and Dimensions: Most Positive

Caring and fair staff. The highest mean score was in the category Caring and Fair Staff; the majority of respondents generally ‘Agreed’ they could discuss issues and make suggestions to the staff, feel they are treated fairly and are cared about, and that all races are well respected. As an important socio-emotional factor for positive learning climate (Cohen, 2006), caring staff exhibit the characteristic of nurturance that helps students feel appreciated by adults in the school, ideally leading to more positive student emotional development (Educational Development Center, 2001).

Safety and sense of belonging. The next-highest mean score was in the category Safety and Sense of Belonging. The majority of respondents reported feeling safe at school. A positive learning climate allows students to feel both physically and psychologically safe, supporting academic achievement and healthy interpersonal relationships (Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, 2006). A high level of physical and psychological safety helps schools to function as learning communities. Collaboration and communication as part of a school team contribute to a positive learning environment (Cohen, 2006). Positive learning climates also produce a community feeling (Educational Development Center, 2001). This sense of belonging and of school-connectedness can help to protect students from risky, unsafe behaviors (Loukas et al., 2006).

Learning Climate Dimensions and Perceptions: Most Negative

Classroom order. Schools with positive learning climates exhibit environments that support healthy interpersonal relationships (Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, 2006) that may lead to improved student problem-solving behaviors and interpersonal growth (Educational Development Center, 2001). Although positive student conduct and interpersonal behaviors are linked to higher-quality learning climates (Loukas et al., 2006), the majority of respondents in this facility perceived that interpersonal problems are generally solved by fighting and that most students are not well behaved or respectful of each other. Students in juvenile detention are at high risk for conduct and behavioral problems (Meisel et al., 1998); therefore, better physical order is absolutely necessary for an improved learning climate (Cohen, 2006).

Intervention strategies used to improve classroom order in this facility (following the PBIS-tiered approach)

Following the PBIS-tiered approach, at Level 1, facility administrators added positive youth development-oriented life-skills educational programs to the curriculum and expanded them to include the family. Once the students completed their programs, they returned to their families and former schools, where they were able to practice their new skills in real-world settings. At Level 2, facility administrators added culturally-responsive (rural culture) counseling groups focusing on conflict resolution training for students with greater needs. At Level 3, involving parents and professional family therapists from the beginning assisted in this transition. For this and all other detention facilities to improve their learning climates, researchers recommend using interventions focused on positive personal growth (National Center for Juvenile Justice, 2006).

The learning climate assessment also became the foundational assessment piece of a new Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative for this facility. The larger Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative reform strategy has historically supported other smaller interventions and improvement strategies in facilities, and rural jurisdictions often have a culture of creativity when it comes to problem-solving (Mendel, 2008). Using creative interventions based on learning climate assessments can be part of a comprehensive approach to detention reform. Learning climate improvement will continue as an integral part of the new Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative approach being introduced in this facility, and can become an important strategy in detention reform for other facilities, too.

Learning Climate Dimensions Comparisons

Strong parent-school partnerships are necessary for a positive learning climate and student academic and social success (Cohen, 2006). In this study, respondents whose mothers had less than some college education were significantly less likely than others to perceive an overall positive learning climate, to perceive the staff as caring and fair, and to perceive that students had a voice in making decisions at the facility. In rural areas, approximately one-quarter of adults possess less than a high school education, and approximately the same percentage of children live in mother-only homes (Mendel, 2008). Possibly, these mothers may be struggling themselves with financial stressors, personal lack of empowerment, and/or issues of being single parents. This finding was investigated further by the administration at the facility, and they assessed the need for any special interventions or programs to assist these mothers and families. Administrators determined that small group sessions or support group sessions, similar to those the students attend as part of their curriculum, are being planned at the facility to help these mothers cope.


Because this study involved only one rural facility with a small sample size, the results of our study may be limited. The facility draws participants from multiple rural counties, but the counties’ demographics are similar. Although it appears that the mean overall learning climate score at this juvenile detention facility rated relatively low, specific strengths and weaknesses need to be analyzed and priorities for improvement set. Caring staff and students’ sense of safety and belonging were strong climate dimensions that need to be maintained. Like other facilities around the county, this facility uses the home school district’s curriculum for academics and encourages students to strive for a high school diploma (Gaganon, 2009). In a newer facility that follows a strengths-based philosophy in a learner-centered climate, it may be easier for teachers and staff to form positive relationships with students that can lead to improved academic success.

Supportive teachers and parents may also have played a large role in creating this positive learning climate dimension. Most respondents seem to believe that the teachers support students, care about all students, and make the students feel appreciated. Most also strongly agree that their parents talk to them about school work and that their parents want them to do their best in school. It seems there is a good foundation at this facility, with caring teachers and supportive parents creating a strong partnership between school and home (Cohen, 2006), which is highly recommended for improving learning climate. The facility should continue to build on this parent-school partnership, as it takes all the adults involved with the school to improve learning climate (Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, 2006).

On the other hand, the behavioral climate and lack of classroom order detracts from social and academic success and needs to be improved, although discipline and enforcement may be more difficult to achieve in this rural setting. Rural students are more likely to be abusing substances when committed to detention, there is a lack of service providers to support PBIS Tier 2 and 3 interventions in the immediate geographical area, and transportation costs to reach such providers are high (Mendel, 2008). The equitable enforcement of rules following the PBIS approach to positive behavior change will, we hope, improve this learning climate dimension. As overall learning climate increases as a result of the facility systematically working to strengthen weak dimensions, student substance abuse behavior may decrease and student conduct and academic achievement should improve. We recommend that the learning climate provided in this facility and all facilities using this approach be reassessed periodically, and that interventions based on the results be implemented. It may be possible for learning climate assessments and targeted interventions to be supported as part of a larger Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.

About the Authors

Justin McDermott is an undergraduate Health Science/Health Care Administration student at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. On a part-time basis, Mr. McDermott teaches health education to at-risk youth in alternative education settings.

Joan Scacciaferro is an undergraduate Health Science student at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. On a part-time basis, Ms. Scacciaferro teaches health education to at-risk youth in alternative education settings.

Joseph D. Visker, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Health Science at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Dr. Visker is also a certified health education specialist and a specialist in program evaluation.

Carolyn C. Cox, PhD, is Professor of Health Science at Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri. Dr. Cox is also a Masters certified health education specialist.


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