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Arming School Staff Is ‘Incredibly Dangerous,’ Advocates Tell School Safety Commission

By Alyson Klein — August 28, 2018 5 min read
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Don’t arm teachers.

That was the message from more than half a dozen speakers at the Federal School Safety Commission’s final listening session Tuesday, in Montgomery, Ala.

The listening session came on the heels of recent reports, including initially in the New York Times, that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is mulling allowing school districts to use flexible federal block grant funding to arm school staff. Education officials in Texas had asked the feds if that would be an appropriate use of the funds.

But nearly half of the educators, experts, and community members who spoke to the panel Tuesday were vehemently against the idea. No one from the public spoke directly in favor of arming educators.

“Arming teachers is an incredibly dangerous policy and [the department] should drop any plans to allow schools to use taxpayer money to buy guns,” said Adam Vincent, who spoke on behalf of Mom’s Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a grassroots lobbying organization. Vincent recallled a friend who committed suicide using a handgun.

“Arming teachers places an unreasonable burden on America’s educators,” said Tricia Daniel, who represented the Alabama Association of School Psychologists. She urged the commission to instead provide funding for school counselors and other mental health professionals.

And Karen Humphrey Sullins, a counselor with Helping Hands Professional Counseling, said she’s worked with children who have experienced trauma, including gun violence, in their home lives. Some of those children would feel deeply anxious if they knew their teachers were armed, she argued.

“If we compromise that safe zone [of school] we could create a whole list of problems,” she said.

Others made it clear they don’t want the feds issuing any mandates that educators must carry weapons.

“State and local school boards should decide what’s appropriate,” Pam Doyle, the immediate past president of the Alabama School Boards Association said. “Educators already have tremendous responsibility. Marksmanship ought not to be one of those responsibilites.”

President Donald Trump created the commission to respond to the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead.

The panel, which is led by DeVos, includes three other cabinet members: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. None of them were on hand for the Alabama listening session—or any of the previous listening sessions—but each sent representatives. Mick Zais, the deputy secretary at the Education Department, stood in for DeVos.

This was the public’s last opportunity to address the panel directly with their ideas for school safety. It was also the third listening session held in a state that voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Other listening sessions were held in Lexington, Ky and Cheyenne, Wyo. The first listening session, in deep-blue Washington, D.C., featured a lot of pushback on the commission’s refusal to consider gun control as part of its work.

At least one participant in the listening session—Marlyn Tillman, the executive director of Gwinnett SToPP, an advocacy organization based outside Atlanta, admonished the commission for providing little advance notice of its listening sessions, and for failing to seek out diverse perspectives.

She called the commission’s attempt to enlist public comment, “disingenuous.” As is the commission’s practice, Zais did not directly respond to her concerns, or those of any other speaker who participated in the listening session.

‘Not Blanket Approaches’

The event in Alabama also included two panels made up of state and local leaders, as well as experts who were invited by the commission to share their ideas.

During one of those panels, local and state officials asked Zais what kind of federal funding is available for states to bolster school safety. He said that after the shooting in Parkland, the president was “adamant” that more resources need to be available for schools.

For instance, he said, the most recent spending bill increased a flexible block grant that can be used for safety and other purposes—the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants—from $400 million to $1.1 billion. (Quick fact check: Trump’s budget, released shortly before the Parkland massacre, sought to zero out funding for the program.)

Also speaking on one of the panels put together by the Education Department: Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. He urged the commission to scrap discipline guidance put forth by the Obama administration that seeks to crack down on discipline disparities between students of color and their more advantaged peers.

Schools should instead be able to come up with their own discipline practices, Butcher said: “We [need to] have school specific targeted responses, not blanket approaches from the federal government.”

But during the listening session, Shukura Nanyamka, a senior community associate with the Southern Poverty Law Center, spoke in favor of the guidance.

“We urge the commission to view this guidance as a resource for keeping students safe in schools. In fact, the guidance equips schools and district with policy and practice to end disparities in student discipline,” she said.

Trump has charged the commission with determining whether to ditch the 2014 civil rights guidance. It was jointly issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice and put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if they enforce intentionally discriminatory rules or if their policies lead to disproportionately higher rates of discipline for students in one racial group, even if those policies were written without discriminatory intent.

The guidance was modeled in part on an initiative in Broward County schools, the PROMISE program, that sought to refer students to alternative disciplinary programs for certain non-violent offenses, as opposed to law enforcement.

Critics of the guidance have suggested that if PROMISE had not been in place, the shooter at Stoneman Douglas may have been on the police’s radar early in his educational career, potentially preventing the massacre. But a Florida state commission disagreed.

Georgia Rep. Rick Jasperse, a Republican who spoke on one of the panels, urged Zais to make sure the commission’s final report, expected later this year, was accessible to educators.

Zais promised him that it wouldn’t include any “mandates” but would offer plenty of links to best practices on school safety.

“You can copy and modify somebody else’s program, but you don’t start with a blank sheet of paper,” he said. “That’s our goal.”

Photo: The Federal Commission on School Safety meets with regional leaders during a roundtable discussion in the Alabama State Capitol building in Montgomery, Ala., on Aug. 28. (Mickey Welsh /The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)