One-Third of Parents Fear for Their Child's Safety at School

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After a year scarred by two mass shootings in high schools, 34 percent of parents fear for their child’s safety at school, a new poll finds, and just 27 percent are very confident or extremely confident about their school’s ability to deter a gunman.

Among a menu of safety proposals, parents are much more likely to favor armed police in schools and mental-health screenings than arming teachers and school staff.

Those findings come from an online poll of 515 parents of school-aged children commissioned by PDK International as part of a broader annual survey about American attitudes about education that is due out in August. The organization released the safety results early to inform ongoing discussions about school safety that have occupied educators and policymakers since the shooting attacks in Parkland, Fla., where 17 people were killed, and Santa Fe, Texas, where 10 were killed.

“There’s a real imperative to increase school safety and the public’s perception that children are safe at school,” Brian Osborne, the superintendent of the New Rochelle, N.Y., district, said in a phone call with reporters Monday, adding that leaders need to make changes in ways that “humanize students” and maintain welcoming school environments.

New Rochelle was thrust into a debate about school safety this year after students were involved in several stabbing attacks. One student was killed and another in an offsite attack, and another was injured in a high school classroom.

Parents Favor Armed Police in Schools

The percentage of parents concerned about school safety is even higher than the 2013 poll, which was conducted a few months after 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. That year, 12 percent of respondents said they feared for their child’s physical safety at school. That’s despite federal data that show rates of violent and non-violent student victimizations—incidents like theft and assault—have continued a multi-year decline. The 2018 poll was conducted May 1-21, a period that overlaps with the Texas school shooting.

Parents from households that make less than $50,000 a year and nonwhite parents are more likely to be concerned about their child’s safety at school, the poll finds. That may be because many children from lower-income families attend schools with fewer resources and student services, said pollster Gary Langer, who administered the 2018 poll on behalf of PDK.

“I think we’re seeing an impact of that, and it’s worth thinking about,” Langer said.

While 27 percent of respondents said they are extremely confident or very confident in their child’s school’s security in the event of a shooting, 41 percent are somewhat confident, and 31 percent said they are not so or not at all confident, the poll finds.

Asked what security proposals they support, 80 percent of parents favor armed police, 76 percent favor mental-health screenings, and 74 percent favor metal detectors at the entrances of schools.

Those are among the most popular proposals that have been circulated at the state and local levels since a former student killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland on Feb. 14.

Florida quickly passed a broad school safety law after the shooting that called for placing a police officer or armed school staff member in every school. Some districts have struggled to meet that mandate. They include Broward County, home of Parkland, which initially rejected plans to arm staff but has since approved an armed guard program after concluding it could not quickly recruit and hire enough law enforcement officers. Broward County, the sixth largest school district in the country, has 234 schools.

Increasing mental-health and supportive services and identifying students who may pose a threat to themselves or others have also dominated the school safety debate in recent months.

Last week, the U.S. Secret Service released a guide to threat assessment, a process for screening and addressing student safety concerns.

In Texas, Gov. Gregg Abbott proposed expanding schools’ mental-health services as part of his safety recommendations.

The public’s support for such measures is in line with a result from last year’s PDK poll, in which 76 percent of respondents said schools should provide mental-health services.

Districts Struggle to Provide Student Support Services

Those findings come at a time when many cash-strapped schools struggle to provide student supports. Nationwide, schools provided one school counselor for every 464 students, the most recent federal data show. That’s well above the ratio recommended by the National School Counselor Assocation, one counselor for every 250 students.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist for every 500-700 students, but the organization’s most recent analysis shows the ratio is closer to 1:1400 nationwide.

In the context of this year’s poll, “mental health” does not refer strictly to individuals with diagnosed mental-health conditions, said Joshua Starr, the CEO of PDK International. Rather, it can be applied to a range of broader issues, including student intent and need for support.

The purpose of mental health services in schools extends beyond screening out dangerous students, said Katherine Minke, the executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

“There is, I think, a lack of recognition that kids who are feeling unsafe, kids who have experienced traumatic events…they’re not in a position to learn,” she said. “Unless we pay attention to their behavior and mental health, they won’t be able to learn.”

Parental Support for Armed Teachers

Parent support for mental health screenings and common safety measures, like metal detectors and school police, is much higher than support for arming teachers and school staff, an idea pushed by President Donald Trump after the Florida shooting. Several states, including Texas, already allow screened and trained teachers to carry concealed weapons in the classroom.

Just 37 percent of parents polled say they support “allowing armed teachers/staff,” the poll finds. That increased to 49 percent when respondents were asked if they would favor arming teachers and staff who met some conditions, including “80 hours of training on the use of force, weapons proficiency, legal issues and first aid; and approval by the school board and local law enforcement.”

Among all parents, 26 percent said having armed staff would make their child more safe at school, compared to 36 percent who said it would make their child less safe. Republicans and gun owners are more likely to support such measures.

Osborne, the New Rochelle superintendent, said school safety requires a balance.

“Making our school buildings into fortresses could also be counterproductive in making students and parents feel less welcome at school,” he said, adding that students are less likely to seek help and report concerns when they don’t trust their school’s environment.

The New Rochelle district responded to concerns following the student stabbings by immediately putting police officers in the high school’s hallways to “re-establish a level of authority,” Osborne said.

It also trained staff to identify students “who may be prone to resolving conflicts with violence,” and the district is in ongoing talks about adding officers to its only high school on a more permanent basis.

Parent preferences identified in the PDK poll will require schools to prioritize how they spend money and force some to seek out new funds, Osborne said.

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His district proposed in May a 4 percent local tax increase that would increase student support services, school counselors and social workers, and security measures in schools. Because the proposed tax increase exceeded a 2 percent state cap, it required approval from 60 percent of voters. The measure failed.

“We thought that, given the public’s demand for increased mental health services, and the obvious need for it here in New Rochelle, that we would have a compelling case,” Osborne said.

A revised version of the district’s budget, which eliminated plans for new psychologists and social workers, was later approved by voters.

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