School Climate & Safety

Chicago Years Inform Ed. Secretary’s Views on Gun Violence

By Michele McNeil — January 11, 2013 7 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan attends a wake for Dawn Hochsprung, the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn. She was one of the six staff members shot to death at the school last month.
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As U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan works with other Obama administration officials on policy responses to the shootings at a Connecticut elementary school, he brings a personal and professional history that has acquainted him with the impact of gun violence.

As schools chief in Chicago from 2001 to 2008, he was affected by the gun deaths of a 10-year-old on the eve of her first day of 4th grade, a 16-year-old boy shot in a city bus on his way home from school, and an 18-year-old honor student killed outside his high school, among others. And growing up, he was surrounded by violence on Chicago’s South Side.

Those experiences have helped turn Mr. Duncan into an outspoken advocate of gun control who has drawn sharp criticism from the National Rifle Association. He’s now among those tasked by President Barack Obama with crafting and selling a package of legislative and executive actions in the wake of the shootings that killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“This is very personal for Arne,” said Peter Cunningham, who worked with Mr. Duncan both in Chicago and as a former top communications official of the U.S. Department of Education. “The whole issue of violence just completely interfered with our ability to stay focused.”

Last week, with Vice President Joe Biden at the helm, Mr. Duncan helped lead a series of meetings with school, parent, and gun owners’ groups—alongside other Cabinet officers, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Mr. Biden said that recommendations were to be delivered this week.

Richard A. Flanary, who attended a Jan. 9 meeting at the White House on behalf of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said administration officials re-emphasized that they are committed to pushing bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and improving background checks for gun owners.

But Mr. Flanary favored recommendations that would go further than that.

“There was a lot of acknowledgment about the complexity of the situation, and the strategies to deal with it are going to be complex as well,” said Mr. Flanary, the deputy executive director for programs and services for the NASSP, based in Reston, Va.

Ready to Engage

Secretary Duncan, who is not shy about using his bully pulpit to push for his brand of change in education and to call out policymakers for their decisions, so far has assumed a background role in the national debate over gun policy after the shootings last month—signaling just how socially and politically complex the issues around gun control are.

Mr. Duncan, who usually speaks with nothing more than talking points, gave one heavily scripted speech Dec. 21, a week after the shootings in Newtown, Conn. The same day, he gave an interview for a special report on the shootings on PBS. He declined Education Week‘s requests for an interview.

“I don’t worry about the outrage fading,” he said in the PBS interview. “I worry about our collective courage to break through, and, again, for me and for so many people, unfortunately, around this country, this is not a new issue. ... In Chicago, we buried a child killed to gun violence every two weeks.”

He perhaps foreshadowed the difficult work he and other Obama administration officials are now engaged in when, in 2010, he was asked about the gun violence that was gripping his hometown.

“I don’t have any answers on it,” he said during remarks that September in Washington. “The violence in Chicago and other places around the country is devastating.

“It is staggering,” he said. “This continues to haunt me.”

When Mr. Duncan was tapped as secretary four years ago, his nomination earned the praise of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an advocacy group based in Washington, which described him as someone who has “dedicated his life to enriching the lives of young people, to keeping them safe.”

At the same time, his selection raised the ire of the NRA, which named him the most anti-gun member of the Obama Cabinet. The Fairfax, Va.-based group called him one who would “turn the Department of Education into a tool to promote a gun-ban agenda in America’s public schools.”

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Mr. Duncan used his position in the Chicago district to lobby the state legislature to tighten gun laws. In 2006, he called on Illinois legislators to ban assault weapons after a 14-year-old honor student was killed in her living room by a stray bullet from what was likely an AK-47.

In 2008, his district allowed school absences so students could attend gun-control rallies.

Mr. Duncan decried the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down a ban on handguns in the nation’s capital and affirmed an individual right to gun ownership under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

At the time, he told the Chicago Sun-Times: “I’m still trying to figure out who we are more in love with, our children or our guns.”

During a typical year while he was leading the Chicago schools, more than 20 students would be killed, mostly off campus, often by guns. He often attended their funerals, and he found it remarkable that violence was so prevalent that the district had a fund to help pay for burials for its students, said Mr. Cunningham, who remains a close adviser to Mr. Duncan.

Yet at the same time, one school policy Mr. Duncan pushed was criticized by those suggesting it made the off-campus violence even worse. He enacted an aggressive school turnaround policy during his tenure in Chicago—which would later become a template for new models under the federal School Improvement Grant turnaround program—that led to many school closures.

Critics blamed those closures for not only causing upheaval in students’ lives, but also throwing them into new schools that often crossed gang boundaries. “When you transfer students from one neighborhood to another neighborhood and you don’t look at all the ramifications, you are setting it up to be a disaster in the beginning,” Tio Hardiman, the director of the Chicago-based CeaseFire Illinois, a community organization that works to defuse neighborhood conflicts, told Education Week in 2009.

At the time, Mr. Duncan’s response to that claim was that it was “absolutely ridiculous"—that far fewer students attended rival high schools than critics were alleging.

Work to Be Done

In an oft-repeated anecdote, Mr. Duncan turned down an award in 2008 from the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence because he felt there was still much work to be done. Mr. Duncan had joined the council’s board before he became the Chicago chief.

“This has always been a very passionate issue for him,” said Beth Coolidge, the vice chairman and a longtime board member for the advocacy group. “It would just tear him apart ... having to go to those funerals of kids that were just trying to live their lives.”

She said that as the district chief executive officer, he tried to approach gun violence not only by advocating what he deemed sensible gun laws, but also through school initiatives.

He pushed a longer school day, in part, to keep students in a safe place for more hours of the day, Ms. Coolidge said. And in the free backpacks the district gave to every student, he wanted fliers educating parents about gun safety.

“From his perspective, any time there was one child that was killed as a result of someone having a weapon, he wasn’t doing enough,” Ms. Coolidge said.

When Mr. Duncan became education secretary in 2009, he pushed similar ideas such as extended learning time and the Promise Neighborhoods program, which helps pair schools with such wraparound services as health or arts education.

Up until the Newtown shootings, his highest-profile moment to address school violence was after the 2009 beating death of 16-year-old Chicago student Derrion Albert, which was captured on cellphone video. Mr. Duncan and Mr. Holder pledged to work together to curb youth violence, although their work was not explicitly focused on the issue of guns.

In fact, the Brady Campaign chided the two Cabinet members for not mentioning what it called the “g” word.

“The youth-violence problem in Chicago is a gun-violence problem. ... The Obama administration has done almost nothing to address this so far,” Paul Helmke, the campaign president, said in an October 2009 statement.

The Duncan-Holder work didn’t result in any prominent changes in federal legislation or large new programs. Education Department spokesman Daren Briscoe said the administration has “made significant investments to keep young people and communities safe.”

He pointed to the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, a federal-local partnership of 10 cities—including New Orleans, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit—to develop comprehensive strategies to reduce youth and gang violence. This fiscal year, the administration plans to make $1 million available to those cities to help school districts improve school climate and respond to violent and disruptive behaviors.

A version of this article appeared in the January 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Gun Concerns Personal for Duncan

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