U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may have said that the Federal Commission on School Safety would not focus on guns, but those who spoke at the commission’s "listening session" Wednesday offered strong opinions on reducing gun violence in schools and rejected the idea that arming teachers or other school personnel is a good idea.
"This commission should look at guns," Michael Yin, who graduated Tuesday from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., and is 2018 Presidential Scholar, said during the session, which was live streamed. "Rather than being a sign of cowardice, it would show great courage for this commission and this administration to make our schools and our students and our entire country safer even when it is hard, even when it is about guns."
On Tuesday, DeVos, who did not attend Wednesday’s session because she was traveling in Europe to observe apprenticeship and vocational education programs, told a Senate subcommittee that the commission is not focusing primarily on gun policy, according to CNN. The commission’s website, however, notes that the members were charged with developing "meaningful and actionable" school safety recommendations that include discussing minimum ages for firearm purchases, as well as addressing social-emotional issues, school safety infrastructure and the impact of violence in video games and the media. The commission is expected to complete its work at the end of the year.
Perhaps because of DeVos' statements, Deputy Secretary Mick Zais, who presided over the session, said that he wanted to clarify that the commission would not be considering confiscating Americans' guns, but that it would look at "specific age limits for the purchase of specific kinds of weapons" and examine "legal procedures for the confiscation of weapons from people with identified mental health issues."
Speakers call for wraparound services, privacy protections
Increasing the availability of trained school resource officers and expanding access to mental health services for students were among the top recommendations members of education organizations and the public made during the session. Several speakers also asked the commission to reject any consideration of rescinding the Obama-era guidance related to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act — which states that the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) will investigate complaints of discipline policies and practices that discriminate based on students' "personal characteristics" — should be maintained and that it improves school safety.
That guidance was the topic of two April "listening sessions" held on the same day, in which DeVos first heard from those who want to maintain the guidance and then met with those who argue it should be rescinded. Opponents of the guidance say that the policy is an example of government overreach, and that school leaders are reluctant to address "troubling, sometimes violent behavior" when they are told to reduce suspensions among disabled and minority students. DeVos has indicated she’s considering rescinding the guidance.
"Listen to communities"
Wednesday’s session was the first gathering for the commission that was open to the media and the public, and some speakers called on the commission to increase its membership to add parents and students, and to hold meetings in communities.
“This federal commission on school safety needs to listen to communities that it’s supposed to represent, communities like mine,” Amina Henderson-Redwan, a leader with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, told the commission.
While some of the speakers argued in favor of more trained school resource officers, others said these personnel create an unwelcoming environment in schools and lead to more arrests for nonviolent infractions.
"Police presence in schools has increased over time and contributes to the criminalization of young people, particularly young black people and brown people," said Hashim Jabar, of Dayton, Ohio-based Racial Justice Now.
Congressman John Rutherford, R-Fla., the first speaker of the morning session, said it’s important for the DOJ to quickly implement the STOP School Violence Act, which includes funding for violence prevention training as well as physical security measures, such as more metal detectors, locks, emergency response technology
"We need to make this money available to schools as soon as possible," he said, but added that it’s important to better understand what is occurring in the perpetrators’ lives that makes them return to schools to kill people. "They go there to kill the pain in their life."
That’s why speakers also called for "softer" measures, such as more counselors, conflict resolution programs, school nurses and social-emotional learning programs.
"Counselors, wraparound services and strong relationships with caring adults for struggling students is what is needed," said Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, the national field organizer with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition pushing for alternatives to suspension and zero-tolerance policies.
Amelia Vance, of the Future of Privacy Forum, also urged the commission to consider privacy issues when increasing video surveillance and using technology to monitor students' online activity.
"We are talking about the government actively seeking out children’s social media accounts, both public and private, and combining this information with existing law enforcement or social services records to profile which students are threats," she said. "Programs to collect student data should be targeted at the most serious threats."
States move forward with safety agendas
Last week, the commission, including those representing the Justice, Health and Human Services and Homeland Security departments, visited a school for the first time, learning about Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports at Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Md. According to a ED press release, George Sugai, a special education professor at the University of Connecticut, gave the commission members an overview of PBIS — a widely used school climate framework — and leaders from the Anne Arundel County (Md.) Public Schools talked about how they implement the program.
In a statement released to the press Tuesday, Beverly J. Hutton, deputy executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), called on the commission to "abandon the notion of arming teachers, principals and other school personnel," to maintain the discipline guidance and to spend more "purposefully" on mental health services in and out of schools.
"The consensus of the education community — more than one hundred education and law enforcement organizations — was captured in the 2013 Framework for Safe and Successful Schools," her statement said. "I hope the members of this commission can reclaim some time on your busy calendars with an awareness that many of the answers you seek are already known."
Those points were echoed by NASSP senior manager of federal engagement and outreach Zachary Scott during the public forum's Wednesday afternoon session. Also speaking during that session, Rabbi Abba Cohen of Agudath Israel of America emphasized that Jewish and other religious-affiliated schools also face the threat of rising ethnic, racial and religious extremism, adding another layer to the school safety discussion.
Meanwhile some states are holding their own school safety commissions. In Arkansas last week, mothers and grandmothers voiced opposition to arming school staff members, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The 18-member commission, appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also listened to a presentation on PBIS. And in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott last week recommended more police and armed officers at schools and called on lawmakers to consider a "red flag" law, which allows family members or police to ask a judge to temporarily take a gun away from someone who appears to be a threat to themselves or others, according to The New York Times.
Roger Riddell contributed to this article.