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Parents' School Safety Fears Remain Unchanged Since Newtown

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The tragic Newtown, Conn., school shooting may still be on the minds of parents as they send their children back to school this fall, according to a new Gallup poll released today.

The poll found that 33 percent of American parents of school-age children say they fear for their oldest child's safety at school. That's the same percentage of fearful parents recorded when the poll was conducted last December after a gunman killed 26 students and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.

Gallup's annual "Work and Education" poll, which was conducted this month, had found in recent years that roughly a quarter of parents polled feared for their child's safety, with a low of 15 percent sharing those concerns in 2009. Immediately following the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, Gallup found that a poll high of 55 percent of parents feared for their child's safety.

A closer look at the respondents' demographics found that parents whose income is less than $50,000 are nearly twice as likely as their counterparts who earn more to be concerned about their children's safety at school. The poll's authors suggest that the findings may be linked to the communities where the respondents live, some of which could be areas where school violence, including bullying and gang activity, is more common.

However, the telephone survey of 508 parents of K-12 students, didn't find that children share the same school safety worries. Only 10 percent of parents said their school-age child had shared any concerns about feeling unsafe at school, compared to 12 percent in 2012. This question was not included in the December 2012 poll. Historically, the poll has found very few parents say their children fear for their safety at school.

Many parents of elementary school-age children with whom I spoke here in Southern California following the Newtown shootings shielded their children from all news of the massacre. Others, like myself, acknowledged what happened in the simplest terms while reassuring their children that school was a safe place.

Ronald D. Stephens, the director of the National School Safety Center, said school security and a review of school crisis plans remain high on the agendas of schools across the nation. As long as the nation does not face another school tragedy in the next year and as communities learn more about their schools' heightened security plans, Stephens said, fewer parents will fear for their children's safety at school.

Stephens says for each district it's about "establishing priorities and trying to get the greatest value for every dollar spent."

Cash-strapped districts are well intentioned with plans for increased security measures. But Stephens said geography could often impede those efforts, especially in warm-weather states that have large school campuses with multiple buildings that have numerous entrances.

And while more states and school districts consider arming teachers or security guards on school campuses, it's unclear how that controversial security measure will affect parents' school safety fears. Stephens cautioned that any armed individual at school must be highly trained. He's concerned that teachers already have enough responsibilities without adding a loaded weapon to their duties.

"Do you reach for your stick of chalk or do you reach for your gun?" he said.

Read more about the Newtown school shootings, their aftermath, and school safety issues here.

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