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Parents' Concern About School Safety Remains Elevated

Parents' Concern About School Safety Remains Elevated

Story Highlights

  • Parental fear same now as after Newtown and Parkland school shootings
  • 12% of parents say child has expressed worry about safety at school

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As summer winds down and children from kindergarten through high school head back to school, 34% of parents remain fearful for their safety. At the same time, fewer (12%) report that their school-aged children have expressed concern about feeling unsafe at school.

The current level of parental worry is similar to last August's 35% reading, which was taken about six months after 17 students and staff members were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It is also on par with the 33% of parents who were concerned about their children's safety at school in August 2013, roughly eight months after 26 students and staff members were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Line graph. Percentage of parents since 1998 who say they fear for their child’s physical safety at school.

The latest readings are from an Aug. 1-14 Gallup poll, with interviewing spanning two non-school-related mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, which together claimed the lives of 31 people in one weekend. Although Gallup's question about school safety does not refer specifically to gun violence, parents' fear has spiked in the past after high-profile mass shootings, indicating they do have these kinds of threats in mind when answering the question.

The highest level of parental fear, 55%, was recorded in April 1999, one day after 13 people were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. By the time parents were sending their children back to school that year, fear had dipped, but only slightly, to 47%, the highest August figure in Gallup's trend. By August 2000, it had dropped to 26%.

Parental fear for their children's safety in school fluctuated over the next two decades but rose in the immediate aftermath of the school shootings at Santana High School in Santee, California, in 2001 and at an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, in 2006. The lowest August reading is 15% in 2008.

This pattern of heightened levels of concern after such an event occurs, followed by a gradual decline as it fades from memory, is common in Gallup trends. Thus, it is not clear if the stability between the 2018 and 2019 readings reflects sustained concern from the Parkland shootings or renewed concern from the El Paso and Dayton shootings.

Children's Fears About School Safety Return to Lower Levels

While parents' fears about school safety remain at the same level as last August after the Parkland, Florida, shootings, children's fears appear to have lessened. One year ago, an August record-high 20% of parents said their children expressed concern or worry about feeling unsafe at school when they returned for the new school year. Yet now, 12% say their children have indicated they are concerned about school safety this year. The current figure is more in line with the historical trend and could be lower because last year's reading came within six months of the Parkland shootings. Children may not see as direct a connection to their own safety at school with the El Paso and Dayton shootings.

Line graph. Percentage of parents since 1999 who say their children expressed worry about feeling unsafe at school this fall.

Throughout Gallup's 20-year trend, the percentage of parents expressing concern about their children's safety has always exceeded the percentage of parents reporting that their children have expressed fear. It is unclear if this gap results from parents simply being more fearful than children, parents being more aware of the risks to children's safety, or children being reluctant to express their fears to their parents.

Bottom Line

As another school year begins, parents' latest level of fear about school safety matches last year's heightened level. This may reflect parents' reaction to the two mass shootings that occurred while the poll was being fielded; or memories of the 2018 Parkland, Florida, shootings; or this may be their new normal. Whatever the case, it is among the highest back-to-school parental school-safety-fear readings Gallup has recorded.

Children's fears, which have consistently been lower than those of their parents, have fallen back to a low level after spiking last year. Many parents undoubtedly shield their children from disturbing news events involving school shootings, which may account for children's lower levels of fear. Yet, shielding children can go only so far. As safety drills (such as lockdowns and shelter-in-place) have become commonplace in U.S. schools today, children are regularly exposed to the possibility of dangerous situations happening at their schools.

View complete question responses and trends.

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