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5 takeaways from Betsy Devos’ 9-month investigation into school safety

Recommendations on gun control are largely absent from the 177-page report.

by Tess Owen
Dec 18 2018, 4:53pm

As part of its long-awaited report, the Federal School Safety Commission has recommended arming school personnel, including teachers, as well as rescinding Obama-era guidance that looked to tackle racial disparity in school discipline.

The commission — established by executive order in the wake of the Parkland shooting earlier this year and led by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — published its findings Tuesday. Recommendations on gun control, however, are largely absent from the 177-page report.

President Donald Trump gave the commission a laundry list of items to consider. At the top was “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases,” according to the executive order, plus other items like violence in video games, access to mental health treatment, and press coverage of mass shootings.

DeVos helms the commission, with members including Secretary of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar II, and now Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who took over from Jeff Sessions last month. In its nine months of probing the issue, the commission held four public listening sessions, conducted four field trips, and met with survivors of mass school shootings.

Critics said the report rehashes well-trodden solutions to school safety already addressed in similar reports during the Bush and Obama administrations — without tackling the issue in any substantive manner, namely addressing gun control.

“It is puzzling that the Federal Commission on School Safety would spend seven months and untold tax dollars on rediscovering well-known school safety strategies,” said JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, in a statement.

“Guns in the wrong hands is a common element in school shootings. The Commission’s failure to address that element — with even the most sensible and noncontroversial recommendations – is nothing short of willful ignorance,” she added.

Racial disparity in discipline

The commission recommended that the Department of Education and Justice Department rescind a sweeping set of guidelines issued under Obama that aimed to tackle growing concerns over “the school-to-prison pipeline,” which found that kids of color were being disproportionately funneled into the criminal justice system as a result of school discipline from a young age compared to their white peers.

The guidance said school administrators should remove students from the classroom only as a last resort, and that school officials — not school resource officers or other law enforcement personnel — should be responsible for administering school discipline. Schools were also urged to focus on alternative means of remedying students’ problematic behaviors in ways that did not involve law enforcement.

“The Commission is deeply troubled that the guidance, while well-intentioned, may have paradoxically contributed to making schools less safe,” the report states.

After the Parkland shooting, many conservatives zeroed in on Obama’s guidance, claiming that the 19-year-old shooter — a former student at the Florida school — would have been arrested had it not been for the school district’s embrace of an alternative discipline program called PROMISE, which was intended to help students who commit minor offenses avoid arrest.

But a Florida state commission on school safety concluded in July that the shooter’s involvement in the PROMISE program in 2013 had nothing to do with his ability to commit a school shooting.

Arming school personnel

In its report, the commission recommends that districts or states consider arming school personnel, either teachers or administrators, to bolster security, especially in rural areas where law enforcement may have a harder time rapidly responding to an active shooter.

But the report also states that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution” and suggests that school districts looking to arm school teachers or personnel consider a number of factors, including what sort of training they’d want to undertake, whether staff would carry concealed weapons versus storing them in safes on campus, for example.

The idea of giving teachers or school staff access to guns during school hours isn’t new, but after the Parkland massacre, President Trump trumpeted the idea, which the NRA has long supported. DeVos had also previously signaled support for the idea of arming teachers.

In August, the New York Times reported that the Education Department was considering allowing districts or states to use federal funding to buy guns for teachers or school administrators, prompting an outcry from education groups.

Guns in schools

The report recommends conducting further research into possible age restrictions on firearm purchases, and that licensed gun owners — parents especially -- seek out safe storage options. But the commission otherwise stayed silent on the question of gun control or gun safety measures.

That’s not particularly surprising. During a congressional hearing in June, DeVos told Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy that the school safety commission did not plan to look at the role of guns in gun violence at schools.

“That is not part of the commission’s charge, per se,” DeVos told the senior Democrat lawmaker. (In a statement to VICE News at the time, the Education Department said that Congress, not the commission, could change or amend existing gun laws.)

The commission, instead, has focused part of its efforts on how violence in video games contributes to mass shootings, although independent experts brought to the commission weren’t able to verify a link between the two.

“Red flag” laws

“Too often following a mass shooting, we learn that people who knew the shooter saw warning signs of potential violence but felt powerless to do anything,” the report states. “If the person has not yet broken any law and may not meet the mental health standards for involuntary commitment, what can be done?”

Red flag laws, the report suggests, could offer a solution. Also known as extreme risk protection orders, the laws give courts the ability to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals believed to be at risk of doing harm to themselves or someone else.

Earlier this year, in the wake of Parkland, lawmakers in at least a dozen states, including Florida, introduced their own version of red flag legislation. By July, just five months after former Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed the state's red flag bill, 450 people were ordered to give up their guns as a result of the new law.

Tip lines and anonymous reporting

The FBI was slammed in the wake of the Parkland shooting after it was forced to admit that it did not follow protocol after receiving information to its tip line about the shooter’s previously expressed “desire to kill.”

Consistent with recommendations in the report, the FBI announced last month that it was overhauling its tip line by adding staff and changing tip review protocols.

The commission also recommends that states or school districts integrate their own anonymous tip lines, such as the app iWatch, rolled out by the Texas governor in March, that allows people to submit anonymous tips — a screenshot of a social media post, for example. Anonymous reporting systems became a mainstay of school safety infrastructure after the Columbine shooting in 1999, the commission notes.

Read the full report below:

Cover image: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits a classroom at the Edward Hynes Charter School in New Orleans, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)