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Betsy DeVos’ smoking gun of ignorance

The education secretary tells Congress that school safety doesn’t involve gun control

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

“Maybe the adults have gotten used to saying, ‘It is what it is,’ but if us students have learned anything, it’s that if you don’t study, you will fail,” said Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale in February. “And in this case, if you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something.”

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student Emma Gonzalez speaks at a rally for gun control at the Broward County Federal Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on February 17, 2018.

The most obvious thing to do is to study the causes of mass shootings, in school and elsewhere, and then pass legislation to fix the problem. Yet Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos doesn’t agree. Her national commission on school safety dismisses the impact of guns on school safety. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising to anyone who’s paying attention. After all, this is the same woman who, during her Senate confirmation hearing in 2017, absurdly justified guns in some schools to “protect from potential grizzlies.” No wonder then that she told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing last week that a school safety commission formed after the Parkland mass shooting was “not part of the commission’s charge, per se.”

The omission of guns from a comprehensive examination of school safety flies in the face of the original directive of the commission: the connection between guns and other violent behaviors. This exclusion also belittles the hundreds of lives that have been negatively affected by gun violence, from Columbine in 1999 to Sandy Hook in 2012 to Parkland earlier this year. In one exchange during the subcommittee hearing, with Sen. Patrick Leahy, DeVos made an absurd argument that gun violence wasn’t a focus because the commission was charged with examining school safety. (As the great Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”)

To be clear, President Trump formed the commission after Nikolas Cruz, 19, killed 17 students with a semiautomatic weapon at his former high school in Parkland on Valentine’s Day. But in June, DeVos had the audacity to tell the Senate panel that guns were not on the commission’s agenda.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s official announcement of the commission made clear what it was supposed to do: “The Commission has been charged with quickly providing meaningful and actionable recommendations to keep students safe at school.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions is quoted in the announcement as saying, “No child should have to be afraid to go to school. That’s why President Trump has taken action to strengthen law enforcement and to protect law-abiding people from the threat of gun violence.” Sessions continued to state, in the announcement, that the Department of Justice has taken steps to put more enforcement officers in schools, ban bump stocks, which enhance semiautomatic firearms so that they can be used to fire several shots in succession, improve background check systems, and prosecute people who lie on a background check. Why put Sessions in a DOE press release if gun control wasn’t on the table?

DeVos knew very well that guns were indeed part of the commission’s original charge, as they should be. According to a February 14 Washington Post analysis, there have been more than 130 shootings at elementary, middle and high schools, and 58 others at colleges and universities, resulting in 70 deaths and almost 200 people wounded. It may have been close to four months — and 15 additional school shootings — later, but at the Parkland students’ graduation ceremony on June 3, their grief had clearly not abated. One activist, David Hogg, had painted his cap orange and affixed to it a price tag reading $1.05 — the amount Parkland student activists say each student in the state of Florida is worth to its senator, Marco Rubio. (They divided the amount that Rubio receives from the National Rifle Association by the number of students in the state.) Deaf to the students’ concerns, the education secretary is pushing guns off the agenda. DeVos’ dishonesty isn’t just a moral failing; it’s intellectually shallow and puts schools at greater risk.

Gun use has to be a part of a conversation on school safety because, as a Centers for Disease Control report finds, “[a]cts of violence can disrupt the learning process and have a negative effect on students, the school itself, and the broader community.” The report also identifies five categories of violent behaviors: bullying, fighting (e.g., punching, slapping, kicking), weapon use, electronic aggression (i.e., cyber bullying) and gang violence. Either DeVos didn’t consult with other government agencies or she chose to ignore them. Either is unacceptable.

Let’s be clear: Bullying is far more pervasive than gun shootings. According to a guide published on the American Psychological Association website, 70 percent of middle and high school students were bullied at some point in their school career and 5 to 15 percent of youth are chronic victims. Only 1 in 10 million bullied students actually goes on to commit a school shooting, according to a 2014 report by Peter Langman, an expert on the psychology of school shooters. But among 48 school shooters he studied closely, approximately 40 percent had been bullied themselves.

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So yes, the conversation has to be bigger than guns, but in a country where guns can be more easily purchased than alcohol, it’s impossible to talk about bullying without talking about guns. Can you imagine trying to fix the opioid crisis without studying addiction?

The education commission is missing an opportunity to take a comprehensive approach to school safety, which includes mental health counseling, eradication of harsh disciplinary practices, gun control, sex education and anti-bullying training.

If the school safety commission lacks the intellectual rigor to connect the dots, its members, who are taking DeVos’ lead, will clearly be disrespecting and disregarding those who know best — the survivors, the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. These brave young activists have offered their own manifesto on gun control, which includes the following requirements: a ban on semi-automatic weapons that fire high-velocity rounds, a ban on accessories that simulate the effect of military-grade automatic weapons, a database of gun sales and universal background checks, a change in privacy laws to allow mental healthcare providers to communicate with law enforcement, a shutdown of gun show and secondhand sales loopholes, permission for the CDC to make recommendations for gun reform, an increase in the firearm purchase minimum age to 21, the dedication of additional funds to mental health research and mental health professionals, and an increase in funding for school security.

Clearly, the Parkland students have done their research, and have viable recommendations for reducing gun violence in our society. Yet instead of seeking their counsel, DeVos is ignoring their manifesto.

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Her ignorance, whether a deliberate result of pro-gun ideology or simply a reflection of her inadequate understanding of education in our country, is preventing us from finding long-term solutions to students’ basic needs. There’s blood on the hands of supposed public servants who willfully ignore the gun violence in front of them. In May, CNN mapped the school shootings in 2018, including the deadly attacks at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Tex., which left 10 people dead, and at Great Mills High School in Lexington Park, Md., in which two people died. The network accounted for 15 school shootings since Parkland. That means there has been a shooting a week between February 14 and May 25.

There is another critical element of school safety that doesn’t involve guns but is also absent from the commission — a discussion of leadership. It’s clear that Betsy DeVos is not only in over her head, she’s also untrustworthy, illogical and contemptuous toward the millions of children and parents who deserve better. There are two elephants in the room we need to call out: You cannot have school safety in the absence of gun control measures and moral leadership in the Department of Education.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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