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Survey: Californians Say Mental Health Care and Emergency Preparedness Are Best Ways to Prevent School Violence

Sacramento, CA – California voters strongly believe that more mental health services and better emergency response training for school staff are the best strategies for preventing violence in schools, according to a survey of 1,200 voters released today by The California Endowment. When asked whether hiring a school counselor or a police officer would be more effective at preventing violence, voters chose counselors by a margin of more than two to one (67% to 26%).

“California voters understand that counseling and mental health services can help prevent senseless tragedies on campus—and frankly, that focus on prevention has been the missing ingredient from school safety efforts in recent years,” said Barbara Raymond, Director of Schools Policy for The California Endowment.

“Addressing gun policy and smart policing strategies are important pieces of the puzzle, but we can’t make schools safe without also improving mental health services. Counselors, nurses, and other support services are part of a range of strategies that will help make Health Happen in Schools, because we know the physical and emotional well-being of students is essential to their academic success,” Raymond said.  

The survey was conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3) on behalf of The California Endowment, which advocates for healthier school environments through its Health Happens in Schools campaign. The survey measured voter support for a wide range of policy options currently under consideration in Sacramento and Washington. Of the options considered, California voters supported emergency preparedness measures and expansions in mental health services most strongly.

For example:

  • 96% of California voters support training school staff in emergency response (including 78% “strongly support”);
  • 96% support requiring every school to have a comprehensive safety plan (79% strongly—California law currently requires schools to maintain safety plans and update them annually by March 1);
  • 91% support training teachers in conflict resolution techniques (64% strongly);
  • 91% support expanding mental health services in communities (69% strongly);
  • 91% support providing mental “first aid” training to school staff, so they can recognize the signs of mental illness in young people (64% strongly);
  • 84% support increasing the number of trained counselors in schools (55% strongly);
  • 50% support putting armed police officers in every school (23% strongly); and
  • Only 31% support allowing teachers trained in firearms to carry guns on school grounds (16% strongly).

When asked to compare policy options directly, voters backed improving mental health services over installing more security cameras and metal detectors by a margin of 66% to 27%, a difference nearly identical to their preference for counselors over police (67% to 26%). Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents (65%) agreed that too many guards and gates on campus risks creating a tense, fortress-like environment that can be detrimental to a school’s educational mission. Regardless of their position on placing police in schools, 88% of voters agreed that officers assigned to schools should get special training in youth development, so they better understand teens and can work more effectively with students and teachers.

The opinions of California gun owners are similar to those expressed by all voters. By a margin of 58% to 36%, gun owners agreed that placing school counselors in every school was a more effective strategy than placing armed police officers in every school. Gun owners also backed increasing mental health service in communities (93%) and providing mental health “first aid” training to school staff (87%). California gun owners were evenly split on allowing teachers to carry firearms on school grounds (49% support; 48% oppose).

"After the horrible tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, our nation finds itself at a fork in the road, facing many different options to keep our schools safe," said Raymond. "After the Columbine High School shooting nearly 15 years ago, schools invested deeply in increasing school police and physical security, but that wasn't enough to keep our children safe. Now, voters are telling us to take a more complete approach that includes mental services and aims to prevent school violence in the first place."

The voter preferences revealed in the survey have generally not been reflected in policy decisions made in recent years at the state and federal level. According to the American School Counselors Association, California currently ranks worst in the nation at providing access to school counselors, with only one counselor per 1,014 students—four times worse than the recommended standard of one per 250. And since the economic downturn began, states have reduced funding for mental health treatment by $4.6 billion, despite increased demand.

"When more people need mental health care, and that care is not available, it's a recipe for disaster," said Rusty Selix, Executive Director of Mental Health America of California. "Voters have the right idea and are telling leaders that providing more resources for mental health should be a priority when it comes to preventing violence in school," he added.

Dave Metz, who supervised development of the poll for FM3, added, “the overwhelming priorities voters place is surprising, especially because gun policy and police in schools have been the most talked-about policy options following the Sandy Hook tragedy. However, the evidence is clear and unmistakable: California voters favor a complete approach to preventing school violence that includes better emergency preparedness and improved access to mental health services.”

A group of California young people also advocated for a comprehensive approach to preventing school violence in this video, titled “California Teens Demand a Real Plan.” The video, which features students and youth leaders active in The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, has received more than 1.1 million hits on YouTube since its release on December 21.

 

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The California Endowment is a private, statewide health foundation, which was established in 1996 to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. Headquartered in downtown Los Angeles, The Endowment has regional offices in Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, and San Diego, with program staff working throughout the state. The Endowment challenges the conventional wisdom that medical settings and individual choices are solely responsible for people's health. The Endowment believes that health happens in neighborhoods, schools, and with prevention. For more information, visit The Endowment’s homepage at www.calendow.org

Survey Methodology:  From January 16-21, 2013, FM3 completed telephone interviews with 1,200 likely voters across California. Interviews were conducted in both English and Spanish, and on landline and cellular phones. The margin of error for the full sample is +/- 2.8%; margins of error for subgroups within the sample will be higher. Some proportions may not add up to 100% because of rounding.