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Education, bullying, mental health, school gun violence top list of parental concerns for their children: poll

by Tamarra McElroy and Jake Lowary

The latest results from an annual poll of Tennessee parents from the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy again show education and school quality is the leading concern parents have for their children for the third consecutive year.

Statewide, parents listed their top concerns as 1) education and school quality (43%), 2) bullying, including cyberbullying (39%), 3) mental health and suicide (37%), 4) school gun violence (32%), and 5) drug and alcohol use (23%).

When asked about specific education concerns, nearly half of parents polled reported the educational progress (51%) and emotional well-being of their child as a concern (50%). “My child’s safety” in school ranked in the top three of parental concerns (38%) but was notably higher among Black parents (48%) and parents in West Tennessee (42%).

Researchers said the concerns about schooling, learning progress and social and emotional well-being were likely intertwined.

Carolyn Heinrich (Photos by Joe Howell)

“Social isolation and shifts in educational practices during the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to greater mental health struggles among children, with some estimates suggesting that rates of depression and anxiety symptoms nearly doubled,” said Carolyn Heinrich, University Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development and member of the advisory committee at the center. “Schools across Tennessee are reporting higher levels of anxiety and depression among students and are responding by strengthening both academic and mental health supports available on campus for students.”

When asked, most Tennessee parents (75%) opposed the proposal being explored by Tennessee lawmakers to reject $1.9 billion in federal funds for education. Parents were also asked their opinion on banning spanking in schools as has been proposed in the legislature, and fewer than 30% opposed the ban.

In the wake of the shooting at the Covenant School in 2023, Tennessee explored a range of potential policy solutions in a special session. The poll explored parental feelings about firearm safety in schools, and their opinions on the August special session.

Nearly 40% of parents said their children were worried about school shootings, and two-thirds of parents said they have had conversations with their children about firearm violence at school. Less than 20% said they felt schools were safer than the previous year, and a similar number considered changing schools or homeschooling due to safety concerns.

“Exposure to firearm violence, directly or indirectly, can impact a child’s health in many ways causing physical, emotional and social symptoms. It can disrupt their sleep or hinder their ability to learn,” said Kelsey Gastineau, MD, MPH, a pediatric hospitalist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “When 2 of 5 parents in Tennessee are worried about school shootings, it’s a signal that they don’t have access to the safe, supportive environments they need to thrive.”

Despite their concerns, most parents (68%) did not follow the special legislative session on public safety following the Covenant School shooting. While few expressed satisfaction with the result of the special session (22%), far more (45%) noted they did not know enough about the session to express an opinion.

“The issues concerning Tennessee parents about their children have remained remarkably stable in the last couple of years, with school quality, cyberbullying, mental health, school gun violence and drug and alcohol use topping the list,” said Stephen W. Patrick, MD, MPH, holder of the Dr. William R. Long Directorship in Children’s Health Policy. “School gun violence continues to be on the mind of parents less than a year after the shooting at The Covenant School, only 17% believe schools are safer this year compared to last year, and 1 in 5 considered changing schools due to safety concerns. These numbers are striking and provide insight into what Tennessee parents are thinking.”

These data are the first in a series of releases on other analyses of the polling. Over the next few months, the Vanderbilt Center for Child Health Policy will report additional data collected on several other issues impacting Tennessee parents and children, including mental health, food insecurity and insurance status.

The poll is conducted annually and covers a range of issues including health insurance status, behavioral health and food security. The research was funded in part by a grant from the Boedecker Foundation.

For results by region of Tennessee and by race, visit: For more information on poll results, read By the Numbers.

This story was originally published by the VUMC Reporter on February 7, 2024.