Student safety has never been too far from the headlines since the Parkland, Fla., school shootings in February, but the issue grabbed public attention in a new way this week with the news that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is considering allowing districts to use certain federal grants to buy firearms.
The federal grants at the heart of the controversy are the allowed under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act. They were designed to allow districts to pay for a range of student-support services, from counseling to education technology.
However, Texas passed along a question from some of its districts to the U.S. Education Department as to whether they could use it to buy guns for educators. Department officials have been mulling that request over but have not provided a definitive answer.
The Trump administration said the story—first reported by the New York Times—has been “blown way out of proportion” and pointed out that the idea didn’t originate with DeVos. But many in the education community, as well as Democrats on Capitol Hill, have loudly condemned arming school staff to keep students safe.
It’s difficult to figure out whether DeVos views the inquiry from Texas districts as a chance to give direction to curious districts, or to encourage schools to arm educators, or a mixture of both. However, we do know what the president and his education secretary have said about the issue in the past. Let’s review their comments.
When he was a presidential candidate in January 2016, Trump said at a campaign rally that a gun-free school zone is “bait” for a “sicko.” He vowed to end the federal law establishing such zones, although doing so would require an act of Congress, and that hasn’t happened yet. Before that rallly, Trump had also called for teachers to be armed to make students safer.
Shortly after the Parkland shooting, Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference that “a teacher would have shot the hell out of” the former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student who attacked the school. He also said teachers love their students and would be willing to protect them with firearms. In a tweet, he said arming 20 percent of teachers at a school could significantly improve its safety.
In addition, the president has suggested that armed teachers get bonus pay, but that teachers who carry guns at school should also be highly trained in the use of firearms: “If you had one teacher who was adept at firearms, they could very well end the attack very quickly,” Trump said in the wake of the Parkland shooting.
“If the coach had a firearm in his locker when he ran at this guy ... If he had a firearm, he wouldn’t have had to run. He would have shot. That would have been the end of it,” Trump said a week after the Parkland shooting, referring to Stoneman Douglas football coach Aaron Feis, who was killed in the attack.
During her confirmation hearing in January 2017, DeVos was roundly ridiculed for saying that eduators at a Wyoming school might want to have guns on campus to guard against grizzly bears.
Perhaps DeVos’ most salient public comments about this issue came during a press conference she held in Parkland after the shooting. She said that arming educators who are “expert in being able to defend” schools should be an option for districts. Such staff must meet “very, very high standards,” DeVos also said.
At the same press event, she specifically praised the Texas School Marshal program that allows districts to arm educators. And she appeared to highlight a private school in Polk County, Florida that has “sentinels” among school staff who carry guns.
However, DeVos has not spoken out in favor of requiring districts to arm staff. That would be consistent with allowing districts to use Title IV money to buy guns and pay for firearms training, but not pressuring them to do so. DeVos is a long-time advocate for local control of education and a limited role for Washington in schools.
The Federal School Safety Commission, which Trump established after the Parkland murders and which DeVos leads, has heard arguments from educators who argue that arming school staff can make schools safer. Others, however, have told the commission that the idea is very problematic and misguided.
Reaction Pours In
The story about DeVos and the federal grants triggered an outpouring of reactions from the education world. Polling indicates that most educators don’t like the idea of school staff carrying guns.
One of the more notable responses was from former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has been a very outspoken public figure in favor of gun control and against keeping firearms out of school. Even if DeVos were to allow the move, he said on Twitter, districts should decline it:
What Trump/DeVos allow- what they want to encourage- and how districts CHOOSE to spend money are two totally different things.
No mandate here#Resist
We have the power, not them! https://t.co/xaAyVCO40Y
— Arne Duncan (@arneduncan) August 23, 2018
Sandy Hook Promise, a group formed by parents of students murdered at the school in Newtown, Conn. nearly six years ago, and now trains people to help prevent violence at school, also came out against the possibility of federal Education Department money being used to buy guns.
Others who issued statements against the proposal:
- New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo
- Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo
- Giffords, named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who barely survived being shot in the head. (The group used to be called Americans for Responsible Solutions.)
- The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
However, Arkansas Sen. Trent Garner, a Republican, welcomed the news:
Great news. Providing funding for teachers and staff is a key part of my #SAFEplan. I am ready to work with our federal partners to provide our teachers and staff the ability to protect themselves. #arpx #arleg #SAFEplan #EnhancedCarry https://t.co/UK1aP8WIWK
— Senator Trent Garner (@Garner4Senate) August 24, 2018
On Thursday, Cam Edwards, a host at NRATV, which is affiliated with the National Rifle Association, reacted to the news by saying that in his experience, many of the teachers who’ve been interested in the idea of being armed at school are already gun owners.
“If you’re looking at ways to help assist these programs around the country ... maybe training grants would be the way to do it,” Edwards said. “A lot of times, it is a challenge to actually fund those hours and hours and hours of training. So that might be something the Education Department might look into.”
You can watch Edwards’ NRATV segment below:
.@camedwards proposes an idea to help assist and fund training programs across the country for teachers and faculty members to be proficient in using a firearm to help defend the school from active-shooter situations. pic.twitter.com/zQBLz0tA4a
— NRATV (@NRATV) August 23, 2018
Photo: President Donald Trump speaks as he hosts a listening session about school violence with high school students, teachers and parents in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington in February. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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