Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told members of Congress that her school safety commission will not focus on guns specifically in their role in school shootings.
DeVos appeared before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on Tuesday. She said the role of guns will not be considered in her work as chair of a school safety commission that was created after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida in February that left 17 people dead.
DeVos was asked by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) whether her commission would look at the “role of firearms as it relates to gun violence in our schools.”
DeVos began to answer, but Leahy interrupted and asked the question again.
“That is not part of the commission’s charge per se,” DeVos answered.
DeVos said the commission is focused on a “culture of violence.” The White House said the commission’s work has included the consideration of video games and how it affects violence from young people, press coverage of mass shootings, and the issue of whether to rollback student discipline guidance released in the Obama administration, according to Politico. The president has mentioned the possibility of arming teachers to protect students against gun violence.
When asked whether the commission has looked at other countries with far less school gun violence that may also have violent video games, and whether that is related to differences in access to firearms, DeVos said that inquiry was not part of the commission’s work.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked a similar question, to which DeVos responded, “It gets down to culture of violence and where does it come from, and violence can manifest in several ways.”
According to analysis by CNN, in the first 21 weeks of 2018, there were 23 school shootings that involved a person getting hurt or killed.
Shaheen said that DeVos should consider “reworking” the commission to consider the role of guns in school shootings.
Chris Murphy (D-CT) who asked DeVos about school safety last year, asked her further about how the commission could make recommendations if it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to school safety.
“I guess I’m just trying to square, again, this belief about not having one-size fits-all with goal of the commission to establish best practices. Because how do you do both?” Murphy asked. “If you just give a menu to schools that might not be terribly helpful. What would be helpful is to look at evidence, what works, what doesn’t. Obviously you know my interest in teachers not being armed. If you look at the evidence, it will not point you in the direction of arming teachers. But how do you balance telling schools what works based on the evidence versus not having a one size fits all presentation on issue of school safety?”
DeVos responded, “Well I don’t think it’s the role of the federal Department of Education to tell schools what they can and should do or can and should not do.”
She added, “It is the role for states and local communities to decide what is going to best to protect their students and we know that there are countless legislatures at the state level debating how to address these issues now. The role of the safety commission is to raise up these practices and encourage states to look at them and encourage communities to look at them.”
The department only recently finished trying to clean up the mess that resulted from DeVos’ last hearing with House members when she said it was up to schools to decide whether or not to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on undocumented children.
Advocacy groups, including MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and and Educational Fund and ACLU, fiercely criticized her for answer and mentioned the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe, which says all students regardless of immigration status are entitled to a free public education. Elizabeth Hill, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, told HuffPost that week, “Her position is that schools must comply with Plyler and all other applicable and relevant law.”
Murphy questioned DeVos several times on whether or not it is appropriate for administrators to call ICE on undocumented students and received non-answers, he asked, “So they can’t call ICE?” DeVos then responded, “I don’t think they can.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) also quizzed DeVos on Tuesday on why the department instituted an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) manual change to dismiss complaints that are part of serial filings or filings that are considered burdensome. OCR handles complaints about Title IX violations and violations of the rights of students with disabilities and students of color. Civil rights groups have sued the department over this change to a Office for Civil Rights manual on handling complaints.
“You claim the office for civil rights is more efficient under your policies,” she said. “One new policy you have allows office of civil rights to dismiss complaints if it imposes an unreasonable burden on OCR resources. If you feel there is a strain on OCR resources, you should be asking Congress for more funding to make sure every student is protected. You reduced the number of OCR staff through voluntary buyouts. Doesn’t that result in fewer staff to handle the workload?”
DeVos answered, “OCR is very much focused on work they have before it and have been able to do so with effectiveness and efficiency and I’m very proud of the work that they’ve done. And they continue to address all complaints appropriately and will continue to do so.”
Murray then pressed DeVos on why the department has not responded to a request from members of Congress in both parties to provide answers on OCR operations and funding.
DeVos said, “We will get back to you on that.”