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DeVos gives quiet nod to arming teachers, despite hearing from many who disagree

Dozens of current or retired teachers, parents and education experts argued against the idea of arming teachers during a DOE "listening tour."
President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks discusses the Federal Commission on School Safety report
President Donald Trump listens as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos discusses the Federal Commission on School Safety report at the White House on Dec. 18, 2018.Evan Vucci / AP

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s new school safety report, released Tuesday, encourages districts to consider arming school personnel, praises state programs that arm teachers and suggests that schools could use federal funds to train staff to use firearms. But the report does so quietly, after the idea of arming teachers faced fierce opposition, including during the Federal Commission on School Safety’s two-month “listening tour” in some of the nation’s reddest states.

The long-awaited report from the commission, chaired by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, does not explicitly recommend that schools provide teachers with firearms, but lauds various state programs that arm teachers. Stressing the need for specially trained school personnel to respond to “acts of violence,” the commission commends divisive initiatives that allow teachers and other staff members to carry guns in South Dakota, Texas and Arkansas for offering “effective training programs,” according to the report.

An Education Department official, who asked not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the report was a clear endorsement of arming teachers.

“When the department provides information on best practices, it does so for schools to conduct those practices,” he said. “They are very direct about the idea of arming teachers, saying, ‘This is what you should do.’”

The Education Department denied that the federal government is telling states to arm teachers. The department’s recommendations reflect “practices that are already working in many communities across the country,” spokesperson Liz Hill said. “The commission’s goal has been to identify state and local practices and policies for lawmakers and local officials to learn from and consider, rather than mandating or dictating solutions.”

The report’s tacit endorsement of arming teachers comes after a national “listening tour” of predominantly red states that was at the heart of the commission’s work. The tour started in June in Washington, and then visited seven states, including Wyoming, Kentucky and Alabama. An NBC News review of the transcripts from those sessions found that even in those states, which have a strong gun culture, the broad consensus against arming teachers was clear among those who attended the sessions.

Dozens of current or retired teachers, parents and education experts argued against the idea of arming teachers, the transcripts show. (The commission did not post transcripts for the listening sessions that took place in Nevada, Wisconsin and Arkansas, and the Education Department declined to release the written comments it received.)

At a listening session in Montgomery, Alabama, Adam Jortner, an Auburn University professor of history who called himself “a passionate defender of the Second Amendment,” strongly argued against giving teachers firearms.

“I am here today to ask you and to advocate that we should not be arming teachers,” said Jortner, noting that it “will break the bonds of our community and will not protect our Second Amendment rights.”

In Kentucky, a retired middle school teacher, Willow Hambrick, had a similar message: “Arm us, instead, with the mental health support that is needed. Arm us with increasing, not decreasing, funds for mental health care. And arm us with smaller class sizes, and ways to fight poverty. And give us common-sense gun control.”

But few participants advocated for schools to arm teachers or other staff members, according to the publicly available transcripts of the tour. Jillian Balow, Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction, emphasized the importance of “citizen sentinels” in lieu of law enforcement in rural communities.

The most forceful support came from the Wyoming-based owner of a private security firm that provides firearms training to educators.

After DeVos’ commission released its final report on Tuesday, some of the listening tour participants said they were concerned about its recommendations. “These people want to put guns in these kids’ schools,” said Jortner, the Auburn professor. “They’re going to arm teachers, and more kids are going to die of firearm misuse because of this report.”

DeVos did not participate in the public listening sessions around the country, but instead sent her deputies, according to Hill, the department spokesperson. The secretary attended meetings of the commission in Washington and met with experts on mental health, entertainment, cyberbullying and other issues that her report recommended addressing as well.

DeVos’ report also explained that schools could use federal money to train personnel to use firearms, pointing to school security funds known as Justice Assistance Grants. “JAG funds may support firearms training for school personnel so long as the training is part of an allowable prevention and education program,” the report said.

Some legal and gun control experts say such language could lead schools to conclude that federal funds could be used for teacher firearm training. “Does the report endorse the use of federal dollars to train teachers to carry and use guns in schools? I think the answer is unquestionably yes,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun safety research and advocacy group.

President Trump advocated for teachers to be armed in the wake of February’s massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, eliciting an outcry from gun safety advocates, educators and law enforcement experts. In August, DeVos cleared the way for states to use another federal grant, known as Title IV funding, on guns in schools, while stressing — as with her commission’s new report — that the federal government is not mandating them to do so.

These moves are “providing support for individuals in school districts where there are different views on this — they can say, ‘Hey look, the federal government is saying this is what they should do,’” said the Education Department official who declined to be named. And in some parts of the country, the call to arm teachers has been rising.

In Texas, the state trains teachers who want to carry guns in schools. In 2017, the state trained just 11 teachers; but after school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, Texas, they trained 150 teachers in 2018, according to Gretchen Grigsby, director of government relations for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which oversees public security officers.

In Ohio, firearms training group FASTER Saves Lives already has eight classes for teachers scheduled for June 2019, after its classes filled up in just 24 hours last January, said program director Joe Eaton.

The vast majority of educators, however, remain opposed to the idea of arming teachers, polls show.

The National Education Association surveyed 1,000 members in March on ways to make schools safer. Eighty-two percent said they would not carry a gun in school, including 63 percent of those who own a gun. Sixty-four percent of those in gun-owning households oppose arming teachers.