What exactly is Betsy DeVos’s school safety commission doing?

School safety groups say they've been kept in the dark in the months since Parkland.
May 18, 2018, 6:34pm

After Friday’s shooting at a Texas high school, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quickly put out a statement offering her prayers for those affected by the massacre. She also highlighted the efforts of the federal commission on school safety, formed in March in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

But despite DeVos’s words, it’s unclear what — if anything — the commission has actually been doing over the last two months, and a variety of groups involved in school safety say they’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of action and transparency.

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Jacki Ball, director of government relations at the National Parent Teacher Association, said her biggest concern is that the commission isn’t engaging with teachers, parents, superintendents, or principals in a substantive way.

“We’re very interested in hearing more specific details about the commission’s work in the field,” Ball said. “We’re concerned because we haven’t heard the details about when those meetings will happen.”

The commission was supposed to hold its second meeting on Thursday afternoon, but invitations went out so late that few participants could make it. DeVos, who heads up the commission, opted to hold a closed informal briefing instead.

That briefing consisted of two panels, one of experts and the other of survivors and parents. Representatives from various education organizations were present in the room, but they were not asked to participate, two people who attended the meeting told VICE News.

In March, President Trump gave the commission a laundry list of items to consider, including age restrictions for certain firearm purchases, how journalists cover mass shootings, violence in video games, access to mental health treatment, building security, and Obama-era guidance on school discipline.

In the meantime, there have been 10 school shootings since the Valentine’s Day massacre in Parkland that left 17 people dead, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Friday’s shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, which left at least eight people dead, was the 16th this year.

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Given the frequent episodes of gun violence in schools across America and the urgency of the issue, stakeholders in school safety — including gun control advocates, teachers groups, and school law enforcement organizations — are surprised they still don’t know what’s on the commission’s agenda, how it plans to solicit advice, or its deadline for completion.

Many of these groups pointed out that the commission is running out of time to talk to stakeholders in the field as the school year winds down.

After publication of this story, an Education Department spokesperson responded with a statement saying the commission plans to hold meetings across the country over the summer and fall with a “full report expected by the end of the year (which is lightning speed for government).”

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said he didn’t receive an invitation for the Thursday meeting until late on Wednesday.

“They have not reached out to us. I am not certain what’s going on,” Canady said earlier on Wednesday. “I don’t know if I have an invite. I wish I did know what was going on. But I don’t.”

The commission hasn’t been particularly forthcoming with members of the media, either. There was no mention of the most recent meeting anywhere on the Education Department’s website until after it took place, nor did it appear on DeVos’ public schedule.

Canady did end up attending the Thursday meeting and said it ultimately made him feel more confident about the commission’s work. But other invited groups were far from impressed.

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On Friday, eight of those groups sent a letter to DeVos expressing their concern that the commission was not including stakeholders in the conversation about how to keep schools safe.

"Regrettably, there have been no further public announcements or specific details provided regarding meaningful opportunities for concerned citizens, practitioners, and experts in the field to engage with the Commission,” the letter said. “Our organizations ask that the Commission works urgently to meaningfully engage stakeholders in the field.”

“The lack of transparency in the whole process has been a real source of concern,” said Bob Farrace, director of public affairs at the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which signed the letter.

He said his biggest worry was that the commission would be used as a smokescreen to justify revoking Obama-era guidance on discipline, which was issued in 2014 to address long-standing concerns that minority students were being disproportionately disciplined and removed from schools compared to their white peers.

“We were hopeful at the outset that this would lead to a much more wide-open conversation about what safety is,” Farrace said. “My concern is that this commission is no more than a ruse to pull back yet another set of Obama-era guidance.”

Groups in the gun control lobby — the Giffords Law Center, Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence — said they haven’t been asked to participate in any of the commission’s activities, but that no one was particularly surprised at that.

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Avery Gardiner, co-president of the Brady Campaign, said her organization reached out to the administration and wrote a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions offering their expertise after Parkland, but they never heard back.

“We’ve been working on this issue since 1974 and they haven’t reached out to us to have any input about what the agenda would be, what research they might read, nothing,” Gardiner said. “We stand ready to help in any way we can. Name the time and place.”

Robin Lloyd, director of government affairs at Giffords, is not optimistic that the commission will focus on gun control, especially given its composition. The commission officially has just four members — all of them Trump Cabinet members: DeVos, Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.

“I don’t think the commission is a thoughtful way to address gun violence in schools,” Lloyd said. “It’s lip service.”

Cassidy Geoghegan, a spokeswoman for Everytown, wasn’t particularly enthused either. “We think it's a sham and a way to delay action on gun safety laws,” Geoghegan said flatly.

This story has been updated to include comment from the Department of Education.