By: Caitlin Emma
Educators Blast Trump Plan to Help Arm School Staff
The Trump administration pushed Monday to sell a school safety plan that includes the potential of armed school staff, but it was met with intense criticism from school principals and teachers unions who said it didn't go far enough and could prove harmful.
Nonetheless, state legislators in places like Mississippi and Alabama who are trying to pass laws that would ease restrictions on guns on K-12 campuses say their efforts have seen a boost in recent weeks as President Donald Trump has repeatedly called for arming school staff, following the high school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos acknowledged on NBC's "Today" show on Monday that a gun in every classroom wouldn't be "appropriate" even as she defended the policy. The White House on Sunday night announced backing for a new Justice Department program that would aid states that seek to train teachers and other school personnel to carry firearms, as part of a package of steps to curb school violence. Officials said that existing DOJ funds would be used to assist states and local law enforcement that want to bolster their armed school personnel.
JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, praised components of the White House plan, but called the push to arm teachers and other school personnel beyond trained police and school resource officers “entirely misguided and dangerous.”
“While the Trump administration’s proposal provides coverage on several fronts, it leaves a gaping hole in addressing civilian access to weapons of war and offers solutions that could put more children in harm’s way,” Bartoletti said.
“Schools are not designed as fortresses, but as places of learning. We must be vigilant that schools are not hardened to the point at which security measures overshadow the need to build positive, trusting climates in which each student can learn at their best,” Bartoletti said.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the president of the National Education Association teachers union, labeled the administration’s school safety package a “distraction” because it does not propose sufficiently tighter gun control laws.
“What they’re trying to do is distract us,” she said during an interview on MSNBC. “We need something serious. Children are dying.”
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, called the proposals “inadequate and concerning.”
“The administration has misplaced its focus on arming school personnel and dismantling civil rights protections for students instead of offering meaningful, evidence-based solutions to gun violence prevention,” Scott said. ”Our students and families do not need a federal commission to study violence prevention, when real solutions that curb access to high-powered firearms and evidence-based violence prevention strategies are readily available."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said Trump has “completely caved to the gun lobby,” and that by “endorsing the gun lobby’s platform,” he’s showing a “shameful abdication” of his responsibility to lead.
“How can we possibly expect teachers, whose mission is to educate children, to respond to horrific mass shootings?” Feinstein said.
The Trump administration's proposal doesn't call for raising the age to 21 for the purchases of some rifles — an idea Trump has previously backed. On Monday, Trump confirmed in a tweet that he was backing away from the concept, conceding that there is “not much political support” for it.
“On 18 to 21 Age Limits, watching court cases and rulings before acting. States are making this decision. Things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support (to put it mildly),” Trump wrote on Twitter.
But the age limit will be considered by a school safety commission that DeVos has been asked to lead. "Everything is on the table, and the commission that is being formed of which I will lead is going to look at this issue, along with other issues, the point being that we have to get much broader than just talking about guns and a gun issue where camps go into their corners," DeVos said on the "Today" show.
Meanwhile, at least a dozen states are considering laws that would ease restrictions on guns on K-12 campuses — including some that would let schools arm trained teachers and other staff, according to the Education Commission of the States, which tracks legislation.
Those efforts have flowered in recent weeks as Trump has repeatedly called for arming school staff.
“Just the fact that he’s been out in front saying ‘do something’ has helped motivate other legislators in the state to say, ‘OK, what can we do?’” said Mississippi state Rep. Dana Criswell, a Republican.
A bill to let trained teachers carry on campuses that Criswell co-sponsored died in committee earlier this year, but after the Parkland shooting — and Trump’s repeated calls for arming school staff — similar language to what was in that bill was revived in another that is still pending, Criswell said.
“I believe that’s why the language was put back in the other bill, because the president, he leads,” he said.
Having financial help from the Justice Department will also help assuage some concerns over costs, Criswell predicted.
That’s true in Alabama as well, said state Rep. Will Ainsworth, a Republican who authored legislation in that state to allow teachers and other staff to carry guns if they are concealed-carry permit holders, undergo 40 hours of police training, have mental health training and more.
Ainsworth’s bill has 33 co-sponsors in the state, but “having the president’s support is huge,” he said.
“We feel good,” he said. “With that many co-sponsors, the president being behind it, I think we’re in a great position to hopefully get a law passed.”
But Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said it's a "terrible day in America" when the president talks about hardening schools as opposed to creating welcoming and safe places for teaching and learning.
"Arming teachers is the most insane and dangerous idea I have heard in a long time," Weingarten said.
In other questions on the "Today" show, co-anchor Savannah Guthrie asked DeVos what percentage of teachers should be armed. Trump has previously said 10 percent to 40 percent of school personnel could be qualified to handle a weapon.
"I don’t have a percentage," DeVos said. "It should only be those capable and qualified and only in places where it's appropriate."
When pressed on putting a gun in every classroom or in every grade, DeVos said, "I don’t think that would be appropriate and I don’t think anybody would agree that would be. ... The point is that schools should have this tool if they choose to use the tool. … Nobody should be mandated to do it."
The Education secretary also appeared on "Fox and Friends" Monday morning, stressing that schools should be protected like other venues, such as stadiums.
And she said Congress has an opportunity to act on legislation, including a bill, S. 2135 (115), by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) designed to improve background checks for gun purchases, as well as the separate “STOP School Violence Act," H.R. 4909 (115), which would repurpose a $50 million Justice Department program focused on school safety.
"Every state and every community is going to do this slightly differently, but we're going to advance ways in which schools can be made safer for students and which works for each community and each state," DeVos said on "Fox and Friends."
A spokesman for the House Education and the Workforce Committee said that Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), who chairs the committee, is pleased that the White House is joining bipartisan efforts in Congress to “keep students safe.”
“The ideas announced by the White House reiterate the need to provide school districts and local communities with the flexibility and resources they need to adopt the best policies to protect students and prevent future tragedies from occurring in schools,” the spokesman said.
Also on Monday, seemingly conflicting details emerged about who would be on the makeup of the school safety commission. The commission is expected to address issues like whether to repeal Obama-era school discipline efforts, the impact of video games on youth violence and age restrictions for certain firearm purchases.
Hogan Gidley, a deputy White House press secretary, said Monday it will consist of "federal officials who will work with all the relevant stakeholders to discover the root causes of school violence and develop (effective) measures to secure our schools and protect our children."
On Sunday night, DeVos had told reporters on a conference call that "I will fight along with everyone that will be part of the commission in this administration for every student and teacher to have a safe environment. We will bring together a wide array of practitioners, including teachers, those on the front lines, to help identify best practices and solutions that are working in communities and states across the country.”
Liz Hill, an Education Department spokeswoman, said DeVos will unveil a "robust plan regarding the commission’s membership, scope of work and timeline in the coming days. She is humbled by [the] opportunity to lead this commission and is committed to finding common-sense solutions that will keep our nation’s children safe at school.”
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