The White House on Sunday night announced backing for a new Justice Department program that would aid states that seek to train teachers and other school personnel to carry firearms, as part of a package of steps to curb school violence.
In addition, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos will chair a government commission exploring steps to prevent school violence, following the Parkland, Fla., shooting last month that left 17 dead, the Trump administration said.
“We are committed to working quickly because there’s no time to waste,” DeVos said on a conference call with reporters. “No student, no family, no teacher and no school should have to live the horror of Parkland or Sandy Hook or Columbine again.”
DeVos said the commission would include teachers. A senior administration official on the call said that it was expected the work would be completed within a year. The official said existing Justice Department funds would be used to assist states and local law enforcement groups that want to bolster their armed school personnel programs.
The administration said the commission will address issues such as whether to repeal Obama-era school discipline efforts, the impact of video games on youth violence and the effects of press coverage of mass violence.
As part of the package that Andrew Bremberg, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council called “immediate policy proposals,” the administration said it was putting its support behind a bill by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) designed to improve background checks for gun purchases.
The White House also backed a bill that’s been dubbed the “STOP School Violence Act” that would essentially repurpose a $50 million Justice Department program focused on school safety.
The administration called on states to adopt “extreme risk protection orders” that allow states to remove firearms from individuals who are a demonstrated threat to themselves or others and called for an audit of the FBI’s tip line.
The proposal did not include calling for raising the age to 21 for the purchases of some rifles — an idea Trump has said he backs. The senior administration official said the issue of how states are addressing the age restrictions will be addressed by the commission.
The proposal did say the administration would “support the transition” of military veterans and retired police officers who want to go into teaching. It also said the administration would encourage attorneys general in the states to audit school district compliance with state emergency preparedness activities.
On the mental health front, the administration called for a review of privacy laws to “determine if any changes or clarifications are needed to improve coordination between mental health and other healthcare professionals, school officials and law enforcement personnel.”
Democrats criticized Trump’s proposals for not going far enough to stop school violence.
“The White House has taken tiny baby steps designed not to upset the [National Rifle Association], when the gun violence epidemic in this country demands that giant steps be taken,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement. “Democrats in the Senate will push to go further including passing universal background checks, actual federal legislation on protection orders, and a debate on banning assault weapons.”
DeVos said in an interview airing on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday that she believes arming teachers “should be an option for states and communities to consider,” though said she “couldn’t ever imagine” her own first-grade teacher being armed in the classroom.
“I have actually asked to head up a task force that will really look at what states are doing,” DeVos said, according to an advance transcript. “See, there are a lot of states that are addressing these issues in very cohesive and coherent ways.”
Despite the administration’s support, many teachers and establishment education groups have voiced opposition to arming teachers. They’ve said they are concerned about accidental discharges and changing classroom dynamics if more guns are in schools.
DeVos last week visited the site of the mass shooting, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, and said at the time she’d be putting out more recommendations on school safety.
As for guns in the classroom, for those teachers “who are capable, this is one solution that can and should be considered,” DeVos told “60 Minutes.” “But no one size fits all. Every state and every community is going to address this issue in a different way.”
Trump has previously called for arming teachers as a strategy to protect schools from shooters, though he has also said the decision should be “up to states.” Trump has also talked about “hardening” schools, strengthening background checks and raising the age for gun purchases. And last week he met with video game executives at the White House after suggesting that graphic content in games could be a factor in mass shootings.
During the interview with Lesley Stahl, DeVos also defended her tenure in the Trump administration and her school choice proposals.
Asked why she had become “the most hated” Cabinet secretary, DeVos said that she’s “not sure exactly how that happened.”
“But I think there are a lot of really powerful forces allied against change,” she said, adding that “I’m more misunderstood than anything.”
DeVos and her husband, Dick, are billionaires with deep Michigan ties who successfully pushed pro-charter school policies in their home state, donating millions to lawmakers and the state Republican Party. Their influence is reflected in just about every major piece of education-related legislation in Michigan since the 1990s.
DeVos said she didn’t know whether the public schools in Michigan improved following the school choice policies she pushed in the state. “I can’t say overall that they have all gotten better,” she said.
“Michigan schools need to do better,” DeVos said. “There is no doubt about it.”
Asked whether she had visited poor-performing schools in the state, DeVos said: “I have not intentionally visited schools that are underperforming.” But, she conceded, “maybe I should.”
DeVos is also scheduled to appear Monday morning on NBC’s “Today” show.