Parental Fears Heightened By Columbine, Poll Shows
By John Nagy, Staff Writer; Tiffany Danitz, Staff Writer
With a full year to reflect on the most startling school shooting in history, nearly three out of four American parents say they are more concerned about school safety than they were before two Colorado youths gunned down twelve of their classmates and a teacher on April 20, 1999. In fact, only forty percent of parents express strong confidence in their childs safety at school, according to a new national poll.
But an overwhelming 85 percent of those responding to the poll, which was conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, place the responsibility for preventing future mass murders like the one committed at Columbine High School last year on the shoulders of parents, rather than schools.
"While the public doesn't send their kids to school in a panic, they are pretty leery about the potential for violence," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. The Center has a grant from Pew Charitable Trusts, the same institution that funds stateline.org.
The poll's findings confirm the views of those who, like Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, see the first line of defense in the home. Two days after the shootings, Leavitt told Utahns that "government is not a good substitute" for adequate parenting. In August, Bush challenged parents to spend more time with their children as a bulwark against future Columbines.
"The (school) institution can't solve the problem itself. It is a societal problem. You don't want to criticize parents for such a tragedy, but they have to know what is going on with their kids," Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview Wednesday.
A USA TODAY /CNN/Gallup survey released last Friday also found that Columbine raised school safety concerns among 70 percent of those polled. Respondents were evenly divided on whether government and society could do anything to prevent new shootings.
Policy makers reacted to last year's violence with an array of gun control proposals, denunciations of Hollywood and violent video games, and efforts to beef up and coordinate school safety plans. Thirty-two states considered gun storage or trigger lock requirements, but Maryland is the only state so far to enact a comprehensive new statute designed to keep guns out of the hands of unauthorized users.
A handful of the gun safety bills that arose after Columbine included provisions that would subject parents to criminal penalties if their children used guns kept in the home to threaten or kill, but to date no state has approved this.
The Pew poll shows that most Americans view poor parenting (42 percent), rather than violence in the media (26 percent) or peer pressure (14 percent), as chiefly responsible for the rash of multiple school shootings since 1997.
Attitudes toward gun control appear to have changed very little despite an outcry for more restrictions on firearms immediately after the Littleton massacre. More than two-thirds of those polled believe that controlling gun ownership is more important than protecting the right of Americans to own guns, a sentiment that has remained constant since Columbine.
But 59 percent believe it is more important to enforce existing gun laws than it is to put additional statutes on the books.
"We often hear of the support for more gun control, but more of the people surveyed talked more of the enforcement side and they talked more of jobs and programs for young people being number one. And we don't hear much of that," Kohut said.
In fact, the survey found that only six percent of respondents believe gun control laws would have prevented Columbine.
Experts agree that the school violence issue centers on parenting. "We used to say it was the inner cities, but now it's in the suburbs. The idea isn't the money or the drugs. All of these accepted notions have been challenged by the Columbine situation. It isn't divorce, it is happening in all our families. It isn't the demographic issues. It is how the child is being parented," family psychologist and author J. Brien O'Callaghan told stateline.org in an interview.
The rise of youth violence in once-placid suburban schools caused more parents to talk to their children about their safety at school, according to the poll. More than three-quarters of the parents said they had spoken with their children about school shootings in the past year. One-third of parents reported that their children expressed genuine concern for their safety at school, with higher concentrations among middle- and high-schoolers than among younger kids.
Despite a flurry of post-Columbine school security moves in school districts around the country that included installing metal detectors and surveillance cameras and requiring student IDs and clear book bags, less than 40 percent of parents said they were aware of tightened security in their neighborhood school. And 17 percent of parents of teenage students said they knew of serious threats at their child's school.
But parents say that security cameras alone will not bring greater safety. Sixty percent believe that security would increase if parents and schools pay more attention to anti-social student attitudes and behavior, up from 49 percent in a poll taken by Newsweek a year ago.
Many school safety policies put in place since Columbine alarm civil libertarians, who fear that security equipment, zero-tolerance laws and profiling damage the learning environment. "It is possible to have a safe school and take certain safety measures without making students feel they have no rights or that they are constantly under supervision," ACLU spokeswoman Emily Whitfield told stateline.org.
The telephone survey, available on line at http://www.people-press.org/april00rpt.htm polled 1,000 adults, including 283 parents of children between the ages of 5 and 17, with an overall margin of error of /- 4 percent. The sample of parents has a margin of error of /- 7 percent.