School Climate & Safety

Trump Panel Slammed on Slow Pace of School Safety Work

By Alyson Klein — May 24, 2018 4 min read
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos appears at a hearing before a House Committee on Education and the Workforce on May 22 in Washington.

Nearly three months—and seven school shootings—since President Donald Trump created a commission to seek solutions to school violence, the Cabinet-level panel is being slammed for what critics see as its slack pace, lack of transparency, and limited representation.

Advocates, parents, and educators note that the commission, which is led by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, has met only once since it was set up in the wake of February’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. They say there’s been very little outreach to the education community. And they worry that the commission seems to have already made up its mind about where to go on school safety.

“It really begs the question of how seriously they are taking this situation,” said Myrna Mandalowitz, the director of government relations at the School Social Work Association of America. “It’s past time for this commission to meet and get the ball rolling.”

Besides DeVos, the commission includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. It has had one organizational meeting, on March 28. Since the commission was first announced on March 11, there have been seven school shootings resulting in death or injury, according to Education Week tracking of such incidents.

Tentative Timetable

DeVos told lawmakers on the House education committee last week—at a hearing just days after the May 18 high school shooting that left 10 students and educators dead in Santa Fe, Texas—that the commission plans to put out a final report by the end of the year and may also release an interim report before then.

“We are looking forward to listening to every interest group, every constituency, particularly teachers, parents, and law enforcement and school leadership that have been close to these situations,” DeVos said.

She also noted that she met May 17 with school safety experts and with those personally affected by past school shootings. That meeting was not open to the public or press, but the department later posted it online. Advocates from organizations representing principals, state chiefs, parents, school counselors, and others were invited to attend.

None of the panelists, including those who lost family members in previous school shootings, mentioned the need for boosting gun control, according to the video of the meeting.

Mandalowitz said she was disappointed that social workers were left out of the meeting. And she isn’t sure how the commission could offer much advice to schools without an expert or educator as a member.

“I don’t really understand how you appoint a commission that’s four Cabinet members who really are not experts on this topic,” she said.

Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations for the National Association of School Psychologists, also has concerns about the commission’s pace. She noted that the Obama administration put out a host of recommendations for programmatic changes and new gun restrictions a little more than a month after the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012, which left 20 children and six educators dead.

“It’s really discouraging to hear that three months after Parkland, they are still finalizing the agenda,” she said. “It feels like there’s no sense of urgency about this. This is an issue that is on every educator’s mind and every parent’s mind.”

Limited Input

The National Association of School Psychologists was among the groups attending the May 17 meeting with DeVos, but its representatives were only permitted to listen, not to offer input, Vaillancourt Strobach added.

“There were a lot of policy and practice proposals thrown out around the table as part of that listening session,” she said. “No one was given the opportunity to weigh in or respond.”

In fact, she said, the public doesn’t have an avenue to share its thoughts other than by emailing the commission at safety@ed.gov, adding, “We don’t know what they are doing with the information that’s being sent there.”

That has contributed to the perception that the commission has already made up its mind about what it will recommend, said Amanda Karhuse, the director of advocacy for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“They seem to have their own idea of who they should be listening to,” Karhuse said. “The president has already said some things publicly. He has an idea of what he wants the commission to say and what the recommendations should be. And they’re not ones we agree with.”

Trump and DeVos, for instance, have said states and districts should consider arming certain teachers in order to deal with school shootings—a proposal NASSP opposes.

Outlining Concerns

NASSP also was among eight groups representing superintendents, state chiefs, school psychologists, social workers, and parents that sent a letter to the department earlier this month outlining their concerns about the lack of outreach. (The letter was sent prior to the Texas school shooting.)

The Education Department said that two top officials—Mick Zais, the deputy secretary, and Kent Talbert, a senior aide—had a 45-minute conference call with the National PTA, one of the groups on the letter. Jacki Ball, the director of government relations for the PTA, said there were no specific details provided during that call about when future meetings of the commission and/or listening sessions would be held. And the Council of Chief State School Officers was told the department would be scheduling a meeting with the schools chiefs soon. Zais and Talbert have also met previously with state teachers of the year to discuss the issue.

But Ball said more needs to be done, beyond conversations with individual associations. “All of us want to engage in this work, and we want to be partners,” she said.

Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2018 edition of Education Week as Trump Panel Slammed on Slow Pace of School Safety Work

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