School Climate & Safety

Firestorm Erupts as Betsy DeVos Weighs If Districts Can Buy Guns With Federal Money

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — August 23, 2018 | Updated: August 24, 2018 8 min read
Jill Collins, a 3rd grade teacher at DeLand-Weldon Elementary School, fires off a round during a concealed carry class for teachers in June at Adventure Tactical Training in Farmer City, Ill. The class was designed to help teachers feel less vulnerable in the wake of a number of recent school shootings across the country.

News that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering whether to let school districts use federal money to buy guns set off a cascade of anger from lawmakers and others, and put the polarizing issue of arming teachers back at the center of the debate over school safety.

At the request of officials in Texas, DeVos and her staff are considering an idea that a grant program under the Every Student Succeeds Act could be used by school districts to pay for firearms and firearms training for school-based staff.

The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, established when Congress passed ESSA in 2015, is a $1.1 billion program for districts to spend on student wellness and health, education technology, and a variety of other priorities. It can also be used to cover costs related to student safety. The statutory language governing the grants does not prohibit using the money for firearms.

The idea that DeVos would back plans to use these grants for guns, first reported by the New York Times, has been “blown way out of proportion,” according to Liz Hill, the spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. A Trump administration official said the potential use of the money did not originate with DeVos, but with Texas education officials who inquired in a letter to DeVos’ department about whether districts could use the support and enrichment grants to purchase firearms.

A spokeswoman for the Texas education department said it had simply passed along questions from districts in the wake of the Parkland shooting about whether certain expenditures could be covered by Title IV grants, including guns. Janet Robinson, who was the superintendent of Newtown, Conn., schools during the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary massacre, said she tells people that having been impacted so directly by a school shooting, she believes giving guns to school staff is not the answer.

“The government is not giving us enough money for social-emotional learning and equity,” said Robinson, who is now the superintendent of Stratford schools in Connecticut. “And we’re going to waste money now on a danger we’re inserting into the classroom?”

The proposal was roundly condemned by Democrats on Capitol Hill and a broad swath of the education field. Arming teachers is not generally a popular idea in the education community. However, the Federal School Safety Commission—established by President Donald Trump after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February and led by DeVos—has heard from educators who support the idea. Some states—Texas among them—do allow school staff to carry guns for safety reasons under certain conditions.

In a March Gallup poll of teachers, about 70 percent of respondents said they do not think they or other school staff members should have guns in school, with nearly 60 percent saying that guns would make schools less safe.

In a poll of public school parents released in July by PDK International, 26 percent said having armed staff would make their child safer at school, compared to 36 percent who said it would make their child less safe. Republicans and gun owners were more likely to support such measures. President Donald Trump has expressed support for the idea in the past.

‘Safe and Drug-Free Schools’

The ESSA-related dollars in question—known as Title IV grants—are controlled and spent at the district level, and are intended to support a well-rounded education and student health and wellness.

Congress approved a $700 million increase for the Title IV grants for this current federal fiscal year shortly after the Parkland school shooting. Lawmakers from both parties said the money would help districts pay for services such as additional mental counseling, crisis training, and violence prevention in schools, among other priorities. They did not mention guns as a possible expense.

Supporters of the grants have also highlighted how schools can use them for programs promoting academics such as dual enrollment, arts education, and similar initiatives.

From left, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen arrive to begin their meeting of the Federal Commission on School Safety in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building last week in Washington.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the grants in its first two spending proposals.

In June, AASA, the School Superintendents Association, reported that in a survey of more than 600 district leaders, 63 percent said they planned to use their Title IV grant cash to create “safe and drug-free schools.” The survey did not specifically ask if district leaders would use the grant money for guns. (AASA officially opposes arming school staff.) The second-most-popular use of the grants was additional school counseling, for which 43 percent of districts reported they’d use the money.

Among the ways districts plan to use the money to improve student health and safety, the most popular option for districts was positive behavior interventions, at 63 percent, according to the AASA survey results. Meanwhile, 26 percent of districts surveyed said they planned to use the money for “school safety equipment.” Again, districts were not asked by AASA specifically about guns.

Each of the nation’s school districts is supposed to receive at least $10,000 under Title IV. However, a district that gets a grant of more than $30,000 must use 20 percent of its funding on at least one activity that helps students become well-rounded, and another 20 percent on at least one activity that helps kids be safe and healthy. The rules of the grant are silent about guns.

Swift and Strong Reactions

A senior Trump administration official stressed that DeVos did not come up with the idea herself of using Title IV for guns, stating, “Department officials have been researching the issue, like they do with every issue, in response to this Texas letter.”

Among the questions shared by the state with the Department of Education was: “Many have asked due to the increased focus on school safety, will allowable purchases under safe and healthy students also include such things as guns, gun training/marshal training for school personnel, metal protectors, bullet proof entries, or other services associated with crisis management?”

The Texas department “simply sought clarification on allowable uses of Title IV funding for school safety purposes. These were questions being presented to us by some of our school systems,” said the spokeswoman, DeEtta Culberson. “To date, [the U.S. Department of Education] has not provided us with a final answer on this specific issue.”

But lawmakers and advocates rushed to weigh in, and many expressed harsh opposition to the idea, including groups such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the American Federation of Teachers.

“This is absurd and appalling,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the top Democrat on the Senate education committee and one of the principal authors of ESSA, in a statement. “It’s not surprising that Secretary DeVos would have the gall to try to sneak guns into schools through a program intended to support students and provide academic enrichment opportunities.”

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tried, unsuccessfully last week after the report to insert an amendment into a spending bill that would ban the Education Department from allowing its federal dollars to buy guns for schools. He called it a “direct contravention” of ESSA’s language, as well as the intent of Congress.

“That is not what parents want. That is not what students want. That is not what teachers want,” Murphy said on the Senate floor.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the STOP School Violence Act to help schools improve safety. It includes language that explicitly bans the law’s grant funds from paying for firearms.

“It is way outside the scope of what Congress intended for this program,” said Ally Bernstein, the executive director of the Title IV-A Coalition, which has lobbied Congress to boost grant funding. “In our conversations with the department, we were never made aware that they were considering this.” (The coalition does not take a position on arming staff for school safety.)

However, Bernstein conceded that Congress would probably have to pass a law or else put pressure on districts in order to get the idea off of school districts’ radar.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee who was also a key ESSA architect, had a more circumspect response to the news: “I’m not a fan of arming teachers, but the safe schools block grant [Title IV] for many years has allowed states to make the decision about how to use those federal dollars to make schools safer for children.”

‘This is School’

DeVos’ school safety commission has heard arguments both for and against arming teachers since the group began its work earlier this year.

Supporters of arming educators say schools are “sitting ducks” without the presence of armed adults to respond quickly in crisis situations. At a recent commission hearing in Arkansas organized by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, administrators from rural districts said arming select staff had given them a sense of safety despite long response times from law enforcement, who can take as long as 30 minutes to respond to a call in isolated areas.

“We’re not willing to take that chance,” Lake Hamilton, Ark., schools Superintendent Steve Anderson, who carries a gun at school, told the commission. “We need someone to protect our kids.”

Still others, including educators who are survivors of school shootings, have actively opposed arming school staff. Some of them say suggestions that school attacks would have turned out differently had teachers been armed—a common argument of proponents—amounts to blaming of survivors.

“You must understand how fast shootings happen and how chaotic and confusing it is. There’s no way to determine who and where the gunfire is coming from,” Abbey Clements, who was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, told the safety commission in June. She waited out the 2012 massacre in the Newtown, Conn., school by singing Christmas carols to her students to distract them.

“Say I had a gun. Would I have left my terrified children? Never,” Clements said. “Would I have been able to find, approach, and fire at him, and not somebody else, without perhaps, a child getting in the way? It’s completely unrealistic to think that an educator ... would have been able to navigate all of this in such a short period of time and take down the gunman without interfering with law enforcement’s response, or harming or killing other educators, or God forbid, children. ... This is not the movies. This is school.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2018 edition of Education Week as Fury Erupts as DeVos Weighs Use of Federal Funds to Buy Guns

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