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Parents showing heightened fears for kids' safety at school
Sacramento Bee


October 27, 2006
Friday AM

According to a national USA Today/Gallup poll conducted this month, parental fear for children's safety at school is at its highest level since early 2001.

More than a third (35 percent) of parents with a child in kindergarten through 12th grade said they feared for the safety of their oldest child at school. In August, 25 percent of parents said the same. In August 2005, a historically low proportion of parents - 21 percent - said they were fearful.




Events such as the attack at an Amish school in Pennsylvania earlier this month create ripples of parental anxiety that spread far and wide, according to Jeffrey M. Jones, managing editor of the Gallup poll.

"You can just see this big spike when you see a prominent incident; we can kind of predict that," Jones said from his office in Princeton, N.J. "If there's nothing happening, it kind of goes back to a normal level."

Parents might avoid riding the roller coaster of worry if they looked at the facts, said Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.

"We go through this every time we have a school shooting," Macallair said. "The fact is that schools are the safest place for kids to be. School shootings tend to draw a lot of publicity, but school violence accounts for a minuscule amount of actual lethal violence that occurs. Most of it occurs in the home."

Macallair also offers some parental consolation, based on juvenile-crime data for 2005: "Youth crime is at an all-time low since the '60s," he says. "Kids are better behaved today than at any time in history."

But parental fear isn't based on percentages. It reached its highest level in a Gallup poll - 55 percent - right after the April 1999 Columbine High School killings in Colorado. Other spikes showed up in polls in 2001, when 45 percent of parents of students reported fearing for their kids' school safety after school shootings in Southern California and in Williamsport, Pa., in March of that year.

The Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice did a study of crime and school after Columbine and found a startling disconnect between fact and anxiety.

"The numbers were pretty startling," Macallair said. "What we found was a decline during the year of Columbine in the number of school shootings. There were approximately 25 school shootings that year, which was actually down from 50-something in 1992."

But anxiety persists. A different poll, Gallup's annual crime poll, also conducted this month, found that 40 percent of Americans frequently or occasionally worry about a school-age child of theirs being harmed at school. It was the highest level of worry since the organization started asking the question six years ago.

Based on Gallup data from 2003 to 2006, parents with the least education were the most likely to say they were worried about their children's safety at school: 41 percent of parents with a high-school education or less said they were fearful; 20 percent of parents with some college and just 12 percent of college graduates said the same.

Parental worry didn't vary significantly between mothers and fathers, nor did community - urban, suburban or rural - appear to affect it.

Children, according to parents, were not nearly as anxious. Twelve percent of parents told Gallup that their kids expressed fear about safety at school. Kids were a little more likely to worry as they grew older: 8 percent of parents with kids in elementary school said their kids had expressed fear, compared with 9 percent of parents of middle-school students and 11 percent of parents of high-schoolers.

A Gallup news release about these findings says the disparity between parents' reports of their children's anxiety and their own may be explained by students having a more accurate sense of school safety because of direct experiences, while parents may be relying on secondhand accounts including news stories, or that parents may underestimate their children's anxiety, because their children are not telling them about it.


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