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Preferred Practices for Promoting School Safety

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Center for Public Policy at VCU Wilder School
May 31, 2019 

In light of increased attention to school safety in the United States, the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs conducted a statewide poll asking Virginians to provide their perceptions of school safety, and methods of promoting school safety, in K-12 schools and on college and university campuses. This poll, a random sample of 802 adults in Virginia, was conducted through both landlines and cellphones from July 10-30, 2018. It had a margin of error of 3.49 percent.

Perceptions of school safety

The poll measured public perception of the safety of college and university campuses across Virginia. It found that 72 percent of respondents found them to be safe (52 percent) or very safe (20 percent), while 22 percent said they were not too safe (16 percent) or not at all safe (6 percent.) The findings show significant regional variation, with those living in Northern Virginia most likely (at 87 percent) to say that campuses were safe or very safe. This is compared to 77 percent of those from the south-central region and 73 percent from the west who said the same. Respondents living in the northwest and Tidewater regions were the least likely to say safe or very safe, with 59 percent and 58 percent respectively.

The role of mental health services in promoting school safety

While 72 percent of Virginians said that they perceived schools in their community to be safe or very safe, 81 percent believed that public schools should provide mental health services to students as a core part of their mission. In addition, 36 percent (an increase from 27 percent in 2016) considered the mental health system to be a better approach for promoting school safety than additional security measures. In contrast, 41 percent of Virginians viewed implementing additional security measures as the best approach for promoting school safety (a decrease from 56 percent in 2016), with 20 percent saying that both were needed (an increase from 11 percent in 2016).

“We were surprised by the shift toward favoring a mental health approach,” said Robyn McDougle, Ph.D. and director of the Center for Public Policy at the Wilder School. “We had asked the same question in previous years and saw no major shift between those two surveys, so this is significant. We aren’t quite sure yet what is driving the change, but as Virginians make efforts to improve school safety, policymakers are likely to find this shift, and the opinion that mental health should be part of the core mission of our public schools, very interesting.”

In fact, policymakers in Virginia are already taking action in promoting mental health in schools. Efforts are being made to reduce the counselor-to-student ratio (currently at one counselor to 425 students) to a goal of 1:250. Other initiatives include education and outreach programs for students as well as additional training for teachers on how to identify a potential mental health concern in their students.

Preferred practices for school resource officers

The poll also asked respondents a series of questions about their preferred practices for school resource officers, who are fully sworn police officers working full time in schools with the authority to make arrests. School resource officers are becoming increasingly common in school safety efforts nationally, with more than half of Virginia’s public schools using them.

The poll found strong support for officers wearing a traditional police uniform (86 percent strongly or somewhat agree with the practice) and carrying a visible firearm (75 percent strongly or somewhat agree). By contrast, 68 percent strongly or somewhat disagreed with officers regularly sitting in classrooms during instructional time.

Public opinion on threats to student safety

The poll also aimed to understand the public’s perception of the greatest threats to student safety. When asked to select what they felt to be the most likely threat, 57 percent said being attacked by another student, 21 percent said self-harm such as cutting or suicide, and 18 percent said being attacked by someone from outside the school. These responses are in contrast to data on threat assessments compiled in 2016-2017 by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, which shows that of 9,238 threats assessed by schools, only 1.6 percent involved someone from outside the school. About fifty percent of those involving a current student were for self-harm, while 45 percent involved a threat of harm to another student and 5 percent involved both.

For a PDF of the 29-page report, including complete question wording and detailed tables of results, please go to oppo.vcu.edu. Later this summer, we will release the results of an upcoming poll about housing equity and programs that may support housing equity in Virginia.

Author: Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, the Center for Public Policy’s five units provide diverse public-facing services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights, and program evaluation to clients in state and local governments, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and the general public, across Virginia and beyond.


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