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What Americans say about…

School security: Is your child safe at school?

Arming teachers trails other school security measures preferred by parents.

Security concerns run high after a year marked by horrific school shootings, with just 27% of K-12 parents in the 50th annual PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools expressing strong confidence that their school could deter an attack like those that have wrenched communities across the nation.

Reaching for solutions, parents overwhelmingly support mental health screening of all students, armed police in the schools, and metal detectors at entrances. Support for allowing teachers and other school staff to carry guns is much lower — 67% of parents prefer not to have their child in a classroom where the teacher is armed, and 63% generally oppose allowing teachers and staff to carry guns. Still, that shifts to an even split if rigorous training and screening are provided.

Regardless, most parents don’t believe that armed staff would make their child safer at school — just 26% say so vs. 36% who say students would be less safe. The rest see no difference.

A total of 72% in the national survey are less than extremely or very confident in their school’s security. Forty-one percent are “somewhat” confident — a weak result where student lives are concerned — and 31% are less confident than that.

Pdkpoll K10C Confidence Shootings

One in three parents, moreover, fears for their child’s physical safety in school, up sharply to a level last seen two decades ago.

Eighty percent of parents support armed police in the schools, 76% endorse mental health screening of all students, and 74% support placing metal detectors at school entrances — all far higher than support for arming teachers and staff. Indeed, parents oppose allowing teachers and school staff to carry guns 63% to 37%. But support for allowing armed teachers and staff rises to 49% if training and screening programs are in place.

Further, when faced with a choice of spending money on armed guards in school or on mental health services for students, the public overwhelmingly prioritizes mental health services — 76% to 23% among all Americans and 71% to 28% among school parents.

Broadly, the survey finds opportunities for progress, with consensus across political lines relating to enhanced security and, most prominently, mental health screening and services. Views on arming teachers or other school staff, by contrast, are sharply partisan. Republicans are more amenable to the idea, particularly when training and screening are included, while most Democrats remain opposed, half strongly so.

Differences, partisan and otherwise, also are apparent in evaluating current security. Security is less of a concern for wealthier, white, and well-educated adults. Lower-income, less-educated, minority, and urban parents are more likely to fear for their child’s safety at school and have less confidence in their school’s ability to deter shooters.

Safety at school

Thirty-four percent of parents fear for their child’s physical safety at school. As noted, that’s 1 in 3, a disturbing number to express such a fundamental concern. It’s been this high before in a PDK survey 20 years ago but represents a steep increase from 2013 when just 12% said they were fearful. (Two school shootings in Arkansas and Oregon in spring 1998 attracted widespread media coverage, including one that was, at the time, the second deadliest at a K-12 school in U.S. history.)

Security Chart Safe Fear 300

Differences among groups are stark. Fears for a child’s safety at school are twice as high among parents with less than $50,000 in household income compared with those making $100,000 or more, 48% vs. 24%. Fear also tops 40% among urban parents, nonwhites, and those without college degrees. And Democrats and liberals are 20 and 16 points more likely than Republicans and conservatives to say they’re fearful for their child’s safety.

Additionally, women are more apt than men to say they fear for their child’s safety at school, 40% vs. 27%. Women typically are more apt than men to report such feelings.

Partisanship also comes into play in views of school security against shooters. Forty-four percent of Republican parents are extremely or very confident in their school’s safety, compared with 25% of Democrats and 20% of independents. Confidence is higher among suburban and rural parents as well, 31% vs. 20% among those in urban areas.

Graph Security Fear For Child Corrected

Arming teachers and staff

There’s especially strong partisanship in attitudes on guns in schools. Fifty-seven percent of Republican parents support allowing teachers or other school employees to carry guns vs. 39% of Independents and just 17% of Democrats.

Gun ownership is another dividing line; among those with a functioning gun at home, 55% support arming teachers and staff vs. 26% of those in households without a gun. There’s a racial/ethnic aspect as well, with support ranging from 44% of white parents to 27% of nonwhites.

Differences are similar when moving out of the abstract to ask whether parents want their child in a classroom with a gun-carrying teacher. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans prefer an armed teacher; 29% of Independents and 10% of Democrats agree. Fifty-two percent of parents in gun-owning households favor the idea as do 46% of rural residents, 44% of conservatives, and 40% of whites. Those compare with 20% in non-gun households, 3 in 10 in cities and suburbs, one-third of moderates, and 12% of liberals, and 2 in 10 nonwhites. Eighty-two percent of blacks and 83% of Hispanic parents would prefer that their oldest child be in a classroom with a teacher who does not carry a gun; 57% of white parents also would prefer a non-gun-carrying teacher.

As noted, results shift when conditions are placed on allowing teachers or school staff to carry a gun at school, 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.” Such systems are in place in some states, including Texas and South Dakota, and, newly, Florida, in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland. Given these requirements, support among parents of school-age children for allowing school employees to carry guns jumps 12 percentage points to split evenly, 49% vs. 50%. Still, those who are strongly opposed outnumber strong supporters, 33% vs. 20%. (Without conditions, strong opponents are more dominant, 45% vs. 13%.)

Change occurs across demographic groups but most sharply among Republicans, with a 19-point gain to 76% support for armed teachers or staff — roughly matching the 70% support among gun-owning households. (About half of Republicans live in a household with a gun, compared with 39% of Independents and 24% of Democrats, according to this survey.) Support also gains 13 points among Independents, to 52%, and 12% among Democrats, albeit just to 29%.

Among supporters of arming teachers and staff, two-thirds also back paying bonuses to those who carry guns in school, including one-quarter who strongly support such a policy. Computed among all parents, 34% both support allowing teachers and staff to carry guns in school when training and screening are in place and paying them a bonus to do so.

Ultimately, parents are divided on whether additional armed personnel will make school safer for their child or not, albeit with more skeptical than supportive. Thirty-six percent think that letting teachers or staff carry guns will make their child less safe, 26% more safe, while 37% think it won’t make much difference in their child’s safety.

Security Chart Proposals 300

Additional measures

While other initiatives garner wide support, there’s variation in the extent and strength of sentiment. Ninety-two percent of Republicans support armed police in the school, for example, and 57% do so strongly. That compares with 75% of Democrats and 73% of Independents, 4 in 10 strongly. Strong support for police in schools is 19 points higher among those without college degrees than those with them, 55% vs. 36% and 18 points higher among Southerners compared with those living elsewhere, 60% vs. 42%.

Metal detectors are a more popular option among noncollege-educated, nonwhite, and lower-income parents, with 8 in 10 or more backing them, half or more doing so strongly. More Democrats support metal detectors than Independents, 80% vs. 63%; Republicans fall in between at 75%.

Mental health screening of all students, by contrast, is supported by three-quarters to 8 in 10 of nearly all groups. Hispanic parents stand out as particularly strong advocates, with 62% strongly for it, compared with 3 in 10 blacks and whites alike.

Some public schools have already moved toward implementing policies in these areas. According to a report in March by the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2015-16 school year, half of public schools provided staff training on recognizing students with potential mental health issues or tendencies to exhibit violent behavior, and about one-third of high schools had a law enforcement officer present on campus during all school hours. Just 6% of high schools required students to pass through metal detectors every day when entering school.

Spending preference

Preference to spend money on mental health services for students rather than on armed guards in the schools is high regardless of support for assigned officers. It’s another result that’s heavily influenced by political inclinations: Democratic parents are 24 points more likely than Republicans to favor mental health screening over guards, 83% vs. 59%. (Still, majorities in both groups.) The gap between liberals and conservatives is nearly identical.

Preference to fund mental health screening instead of guards is lower among whites than nonwhites, with one exception — 91% of white women with college degrees hold this view, slightly more even than all nonwhites. This declines to 58% of white men without college degrees. (These results are among all adults, not just parents, for adequate sample sizes.)

Security Chart Spending 300

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