U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, chairman of a federal commission on school safety, doesn’t want to talk about gun control. Neither does her boss, President Donald Trump.
DeVos, who has spent most of her time in office working to dismantle the Department of Education, told a Senate panel in June that firearms are “not part of the commission’s charge, per se.” That’s right. The already impotent commission called for by President Trump in response to outrage over school shootings will not consider the defining element of school shootings — guns.
Guns are not an issue the commission wants to include in its agenda? That’s like convening a commision on sexually transmitted diseases but barring them from discussing condoms.
DeVos didn’t show up to a meeting of the commission in Cheyenne last week. Neither did the three other principal members of the group: the attorney general and secretaries of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
No one should be surprised that a commission created by the president to make schools safer is interested less in safety than in PR and pandering.
One of the first actions President Donald Trump pushed through Congress repealed a rule that would have made it harder for people with mental illnesses to buy guns.
The motive for such an asinine move was transparent: the rule was created during former President Barack Obama’s administration, so of course Trump had to get rid of it no matter how many lives it might have saved.
The president’s immediate reaction in February to the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school by a mentally disturbed former student who killed 17 was to arm teachers so they could supposedly defend their schools. It was straight out of the National Rifle Association’s playbook to distract from what the president and Congress should be doing and instead focus on the divisive issue of putting the burden on educators to stop invaders armed to the teeth with high-powered weapons.
Six months after Parkland and the much-needed national discussion it sparked about school violence, the Trump administration is content to put its dog-and-pony show on the road to places like Cheyenne so people can think the federal government is taking school safety seriously.
The commission is merely paying lip service to teachers, administrators, students and parents who want to see stricter laws and more mental health services so doctors and law enforcement can better recognize and stop some of society’s most dangerous people.
Trump and his commission would much rather continue to press the NRA’s simple-minded solution that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to put firearms in the hands of good guys — in this case teachers.
Never mind that inexperienced teachers — no matter how well-trained they may be with firearms — are hired to educate students, not stop an active-shooter. In trying to take out a killer, civilians suddenly put in charge of protecting everyone around them are likely to create more victims during a time of total chaos. No matter how willing or able the teacher may be, we as a society should never burden them with that responsibility.
Having multiple people shooting at each other would naturally confuse first responders who would have no idea who is the criminal.
Fourteen states allow armed teachers in all school districts; Wyoming and 15 others authorize each school district to decide on its own if it wants to let staff carry guns.
School districts in Cody and Evanston chose to allow teachers with concealed carry permits and specified firearms training to have guns at their schools. Others are considering the idea.
Johnson Junior High School Principal Brian Cox of Cheyenne memorably compared asking a teacher to take down a shooter to asking a plumber to cut your hair — that’s not their job, and you’re not going to like the outcome.
Instead of transforming teachers into modern-day versions of Wyatt Earp, Cox has a much better idea. “The time, energy and money to focus on [school safety] would be better spent on mental health issues and increasing the [number] of social workers and psychologists,” he said.
The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun, in other words, is to identify and treat him before he picks up a gun and becomes a bad guy. One might also frame his approach in terms of ounces of prevention vs. pounds of violent cure.
In an interview Cox told me he doesn’t think any school situation has ever been made safer by bringing in more guns. “It’s like putting fire on more fire — it’s a recipe for disaster,” the principal said.
Cox said that at the Parkland High School tragedy, “Even law enforcement froze up and couldn’t act. It could happen to teachers too, even if they are avid hunters. I’m very skeptical that some wouldn’t freeze up” and also become victims.
An armed teacher might feel secure enough in his firearms training, experience and abilities that he or she would make the bad decision to leave the classroom to take on a shooter, he noted. Worse yet, he or she may feel obligated to do so once we’ve tasked teachers with defending students. If that transpired, Cox said, it would leave students vulnerable without an adult to try to keep them alive and lead them to safety. Staying with students behind locked doors is the proper response, he reasoned.
Students may find a teacher’s gun in a classroom no matter what measures are taken to secure them, he said, and guns can accidentally discharge. “Telling parents that their son or daughter was accidentally killed would be a very difficult call to make,” Cox said.
The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle reported that Vera Berger, a New Mexico high school student who traveled to Wyoming, told the commission it should consider guns “a primary threat to school safety,” even if they are in the hands of school staff or law enforcement.
Berger poignantly noted her generation has grown up in the wake of the massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School and has been waiting to no avail to see the government do something to make students more safe.
“We watched the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School unfold,” she recalled of the 2012 massacre of 20 elementary students and six teachers in Connecticut. “We were horrified. Ultimately we were hopeful because we knew that the tragedy would bring change.”
But in the six years since Sandy Hook, Berger said, “There have been 250 school shootings and little political action.”
It’s a national disgrace that Congress has failed to act, initially killing Obama’s call for stricter gun laws and now following Trump’s lead to ignore the problem except for expecting teachers to mow down any gunmen in sight.
Survivors of the Parkland shooting have protested and challenged adults to do something about gun violence. Students throughout the nation, including at several schools in Wyoming, have also held rallies and asked older generations to listen to their pleas for peace at schools, where they should be safe.
They deserve our protection, not just public condolences and telling survivors and families they are “in our thoughts and prayers.”
It’s not nearly enough. So many of our leaders are willing to buckle under pressure from gun-rights groups and others who fund their campaigns, then ask us to turn a blind eye to the sight of students and adults being carried out of schools in body bags.
Here’s how the school safety commission has responded to its task so far: Abbey Clements, a teacher and Sandy Hook survivor, spoke against arming teachers at its Washington, D.C., meeting.
The Los Angeles Times reported what Clements said, even though her words didn’t make it into the official transcript. “Sure, secure buildings,” the teacher said.
“But do not give kids clear backpacks, bulletproof backpacks, reading igloos that morph into bulletproof caves,” Clements stressed. “These are the things of a war zone and shouldn’t be in American public schools. It’s the guns, and this is on us to fix. …”
The newspaper said Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais — the same official who moderated the Cheyenne meeting — cut Clements off and asked her to “wrap it up, please.”
It’s the guns. Trump and his safety commission have done their best to keep the truth out of their conversation. They might as well wrap up their work — they knew the outcome before they heard a word from the rest of us.