Education Secretary Betsy DeVos won’t be around Wednesday to attend the first public “listening session” hosted by the new federal school safety commission, which she chairs.
She’s in Switzerland instead.
According to a release from her department, DeVos is on a “multi-stop learning tour” to Zurich, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom to learn about apprenticeship programs, among other things.
Wednesday’s all-day session at the Education Department headquarters in Washington is the new School Safety Commission’s first public forum, and an opportunity for stakeholders in the issue of school safety, like teachers organizations and mental health experts, to share their recommendations. Gun control advocates were notably excluded.
The Commission has four members: DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar III. But none of the other three will be there either; they’re all sending deputies in their place.
“We don’t doubt the legitimacy of the trip to Europe,” said Bob Farrace, director of public affairs at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “But it is odd, and perhaps a bit disrespectful, that the secretary would plan a public listening session on a day she knew she would be leaving the country. The absence of all four commissioners signals that this commission’s school safety work is simply not a priority for this administration.”
The School Safety Commission was formed by presidential order March 12 about a month after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead.
The Commission has been criticized for its apparent lack of progress in the nearly three months since it was convened, and DeVos has been accused of not taking its mission seriously enough.
“The work of the commission is an absolute priority for the Secretary,” wrote Department of Education press secretary Elizabeth Hill in an email to VICE News. “The Secretary has attended every meeting thus far and asked Deputy Secretary Zais, second in command at the Department, to attend today’s session on her behalf. There is no time for delay as the Secretary has urged the commission to finish its report before the end of the year.”
On May 18, after another shooting at a high school, this time in Santa Fe, Texas, left 10 people dead, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the Commission had been “activated” that day, which critics interpreted to mean that it hadn’t been doing anything in the two months since it was formed.
The Commission held its first official field trip last week. DeVos traveled to Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary School in Hanover, Maryland. The focus of the trip was largely on school climate, specifically on a philosophy called PBIS that seeks to reward good behavior and improve communication between school staff and students. “PBIS is a well-known program,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of National Association of Secondary School Principals, in a statement. “We’re concerned the secretary is just getting up to speed while the rest of the education community feels the urgency to act to implement practices we already know work. It’s a hazard of a chief education officer who is not in touch with what’s happening in schools.”
DeVos also made waves Tuesday, during a congressional hearing about the Education Department’s 2019 budget proposal. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, asked DeVos if her commission would look at the role of guns in school shootings.
“That is not part of the commission’s charge, per se,” DeVos replied.