Expert opinion

Poll points to clear divisions on school safety

by Maria Ferguson

This problem is far too complicated for a one-size-fits-all solution.

The 2018 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools focused a series of questions on one of the most upsetting issues facing our nation today: school safety and security. The gravity of school security needs no explaining, and the effect on students, educators, and parents can’t be overstated. The fact that Education Week now has a School Shooting Tracker to monitor these incidents speaks volumes about the increasing presence of this issue in the lives of schools. Although incidents of school violence are at an all-time low nationwide, school shootings hit a nerve so deep and seem so achingly familiar that almost everyone is convinced this is a growing problem. But even though school violence overall is down, mass shootings, such as the incident in Parkland, Fla., represent a new kind of security risk. How to manage that risk and prepare for the worst represents the kind of challenge that is fortunately still unfamiliar to most communities.

The circumstances surrounding mass shootings and school violence touch on some of the most difficult and divisive issues facing our nation: guns, mental health, privacy, race, and class. It’s not surprising then that the results of PDK’s poll reflect the current state of America. On some issues, there is much common ground. On other issues — especially those that involve who feels safe, who fears for their children’s safety, and who believes weaponizing schools will help promote security — race, wealth, education, and political stripe create clear division lines.

Sadly, there is plenty of common ground in how we view security at school. A strong majority (72%) of parents are not very confident in their school’s security, and 41% are only somewhat confident. On the topic of prevention, parents are united in their strong support for mental health screenings for students (76%), armed police in schools (80%), and metal detectors at school entrances (74%). A majority of parents also reject the idea of arming teachers and staff, 63% to 37%, as a way to increase security. The dividing lines start to emerge when the results are broken down by political party, gender, race, and socioeconomic status.

The sucker punch for me was reading that parents who make more money are far less fearful about their children’s safety. I knew it was coming, but reading it still hurt. The idea that parents who makes less than $50,000 annually are twice as fearful as their wealthier counterparts (48% vs. 24%) just rattles me, although it is completely predictable. Fears are also greater for urban parents, nonwhites, and those without a college degree. Once again everything seems to be better for wealthier, educated, white people — but most people in the U.S. are not wealthy, white, or highly educated. I would wager that some parents think their wealth, race, and education are somehow going to protect their kids from violent acts at school, an attitude that reflects the blissful denial that only privilege brings. The truth is that the sheer fact that their kids are growing up in wealthier communities with a more robust educational and civic infrastructure absolutely makes them safer. But such privilege does not guarantee that violence won’t darken the hallways of their local school. We are too far off the rails for that. Even the whitest, most affluent school districts are developing strategies for keeping their students and teachers as safe as possible.

The PDK poll shows that political persuasion and gun ownership affects attitudes about arming teachers and staff and placing armed police in schools. Republicans and gun owners are far more supportive of these strategies, with two-thirds also supporting bonuses for teachers and staff who carry guns to school. Democrats and independents are far less supportive of these strategies and, predictably, fewer of them own guns than their Republican counterparts. When it comes to spending money, Democratic parents are far more in favor (83%) of supporting mental health services than they are armed guards. Only 59% of Republicans would make the same choice. Race and gender also influenced answers to this question. Nonwhites are more likely to support mental health services than armed guards with one exception: white women with college degrees. A whopping 91% support mental health services over armed guards.

Any sensible plan for making schools safer and more secure will not involve a single and simple choice between mental health services and armed guards. This problem is far too complicated for a one-size-fits-all solution. Each school and community will have to explore its own priorities, its own fears, and its own expectations before crafting a course of action appropriate for their context. Truly addressing this problem will require everyone in the community, from students to law enforcement, to think about their role in making schools the safe and secure places we all know they should be.

Maria Ferguson

Maria Ferguson is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and the Washington view columnist for Phi Delta Kappan magazine. Maria can be reached at

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