Trump created the school safety commission and asked Betsy DeVos to chair it following the February shooting of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. | Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
December 19, 2018
A Trump administration school safety panel hardly touched on the role of guns in deadly school shootings in its wrap-up Tuesday.
Instead, the panel took a far less confrontational approach by sidestepping President Donald Trump’s call for trained teachers to carry guns and avoiding recommendations on age restrictions for the purchase of guns.
Trump created the school safety commission and asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to chair it following the February shooting that claimed 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Trump, after the shooting, said teachers “adept at firearms” could end school attacks and thwart them altogether, because “cowards” wouldn’t go into well-guarded schools to commit shootings.
But the panel instead encouraged more coordination between schools and law enforcement that could include programs that arm highly trained school personnel. It said local communities should consider incentives that encourage military veterans and those with a law enforcement background to work in schools.
It also endorsed the adoption by states of “extreme risk protection orders” designed to temporarily restrict access to firearms by individuals found to be a danger to themselves or others and encouraged Congress to modernize privacy laws.
Notably, the commission didn’t weigh in on whether firearm purchases should be subjected to age restrictions — despite Trump directing it to do so. After the Parkland shooting, Trump said he was open to raising to 21 the legal age for purchasing certain types of guns, including assault-style rifles like the one used in Parkland. But he later backtracked, conceding there is “not much political support” for such a step.
At a roundtable discussion Tuesday afternoon in the White House to discuss the report’s findings, Trump appeared reluctant to give up on allowing trained teachers to carry guns, saying school attacks can happen in under five minutes and “that is why it’s critical to have armed personnel available at a moment’s notice.”
“These are people, teachers in many cases, that are the highest trained that you can get. People that are natural to firearms. People that know how to handle them. People that have great experience, and on top of the experience, have taken courses and they are right on the site. This is critical to the hardening of our schools against an attack,” Trump said.
Trump said these school employees “love our students” and “by loving their students, they want to fight for their students more than anybody else would.”
The final report in many ways is largely symbolic, amounting to a list of ideas states and school districts can take or leave on issues like school mental health.
But it was sure to set up a new clash with Democrats over guns and civil rights as the party prepares to gain new oversight powers when Democrats take control of the House in January. House Democrats have already promised to move quickly to require federal background checks on all gun sales.
The advisory group also went after a policy put in place by the Obama administration that deals with school punishment. The group recommended scrapping that civil rights policy, which was intended to keep minority students from being punished more often than whites.
Conservatives have long viewed the Obama approach as a burden on school districts and possibly dangerous for its potential to keep violent children in school, and they pushed for the panel to recommend revoking it.
A senior administration official said the decision to recommend rescinding the discipline guidance was made after receiving input from teachers, students, administrators and mental health professionals.
He said the commission was concerned by the “recurring narrative” that teachers and students were afraid because of individuals who had a history of anti-social or in some instances aggressive and potentially violent behavior being “left unpunished or left unchecked.”
“Our conclusions in this report do not impose one-size-fits-all solutions for everyone, everywhere,” DeVos told reporters on a conference call. “The primary responsibility for the physical security of schools and the safety of their students naturally rests with states and local communities. Local problems need local solutions.”
In addition to DeVos, the commission was comprised of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
The commission called more than a dozen meetings, including out-of-state field visits, public listening sessions and testimony from experts.
From the start, many teachers and education groups were frustrated by Trump and DeVos’ public support for arming trained teachers in school districts that choose to do so. The commission often faced criticism for not discussing gun safety and for giving public notice of meetings on short notice.
Its focus notably contradicted that of the student-led “March for Our Lives” movement stemming from the Parkland shootings that called for greater gun control and campaigned in advance of the November elections.
In June, DeVos drew criticism when she told a congressional committee that the commission wouldn’t be investigating gun laws. Afterward, a department spokeswoman said the panel was considering age restrictions on firearms and that the Justice Department had taken the lead on that issue.
With the report’s release, JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the commission compromised “its own credibility by staying mute on the issue of firearm access and other prevention efforts that reduce the need to turn schools into fortresses.”
“Guns in the wrong hands is a common element in school shootings,” Bartoletti said.
The most far-reaching of all the panel’s recommendations was the one to rescind the 2014 school discipline guidance. With the guidance, the Obama administration sought to confront a widespread problem: that minority students and students with disabilities are disciplined, suspended out of school and expelled more often.
Civil rights groups and Democrats have fiercely defended the policy and said they’re outraged the administration would connect it with school shootings. POLITICO reported in November that the panel was planning to say the guidance should be canceled.
Conservatives have long maintained the Obama instructions made schools less safe, arguing that school leaders in Broward County, Fla., where Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is located, and elsewhere have been much more reluctant to report dangerous students because of such policies. The guidelines came under scrutiny from Republicans like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio after the Parkland school shooting.
Rubio said it “may have contributed to systemic failures to report Nikolas Cruz,” the accused gunman in Parkland, to police sooner when he exhibited disturbing behavior.
Republicans also criticized a 2013 decision by Broward schools to overhaul the district’s school discipline policies and launch a program to replace some suspensions, expulsions and arrests with support, mentoring and counseling when students committed nonviolent offenses.
While the Parkland school shooter was once referred to that discipline program, a Florida commission investigating the massacre found the discipline program wasn’t relevant and didn’t prevent the shooter from buying a gun.
The group Educators for Excellence was among those expressing disappointment over the school discipline recommendation.
“Rescinding the guidance and failing to put forward a concrete plan of how schools can end unjust discipline disparities reflects a true failure of leadership,” said Marisa Crabtree, a member of the organization and Los Angeles teacher who met with DeVos in April.
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