If the Education Department wanted to see what the public response would be to allowing schools to use federal grants to purchase firearms, the last 48 hours have made abundantly clear that many stakeholders would not be happy.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that department officials were looking into whether a 2015 law left school districts leeway to buy guns with grants intended to improve some of the country’s poorest schools. If approved, it would represent a significant policy change for the Education Department and would surely invite legal challenges, but officials stressed to CNN Thursday the idea did not originate with the department or Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“I think that was a political balloon that was floated to test what type of pushback would be received, and it turned out to be a lead balloon that crashed very quickly at multiple levels from political to practical,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
At issue is the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grant program created by Title IV, part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. It was intended to offer school districts funds for three purposes: to provide access to a well-rounded education, to improve school conditions for learning, and to improve the use of technology for academic achievement and digital literacy.
The Trump administration has twice attempted to eliminate funding for the grants, but Congress authorized $1.6 billion for the program in 2018. According to the Times, the Education Department believes an argument can be made that guns fall under the “improve school conditions” category.
The law makes no mention of firearms, unlike other recent bills that explicitly prohibit using funds to purchase weapons and ammunition. However, it does include drug and violence prevention, which could entail an environment without weapons.
The Education Department has downplayed the report, saying it was only considering the issue because Texas schools had inquired about it and no decisions have been made. The secretary would like to see Congress clarify its intention, officials told CNN.
Our students need more books, art and music programs, nurses and school counselors. They do not need more guns in their classrooms.https://t.co/SFT9fijZA4
— Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA) August 23, 2018
“The department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety,” a spokesperson for department told the Times. “The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios.”
The Title IV-A Coalition, comprised of dozens of organizations that support the program, expressed extreme dismay that the Education Department is even considering the idea. The grants, they say, are intended to provide ongoing educational services, not one-time purchases.
“The department has not only ignored its implementation, but instead proposed the elimination of the flexible block grant two years in a row,” the coalition said in a statement. “Only now, after Congress significantly increased funding, has the Department taken notice and is attempting to capitalize on an opportunity to push their baseless agenda to arm teachers, which the majority of the country has spoken out against.”
The prospect of taxpayer dollars purchasing guns for schools also drew swift rebukes from teachers, gun control advocates, and Democrats.
Arming teachers is a dangerous policy that should never see the light of day. President Trump and Republicans have done nothing to reduce gun violence. Now, they propose taking money earmarked for teachers, counselors and books and putting it toward guns. It’s sickening.
— Sen Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) August 23, 2018
“If implemented, the Trump Administration’s unprecedented plan to ransack mental health and anti-bullying funding to pay for the arming of teachers would be one of the most egregious, short-sighted and dangerous executive branch abuses of our education system in modern history,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.
One of the most vocal Democrats on school safety issues, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has already introduced an amendment to the 2019 education appropriations bill to block the use of federal funds to purchase firearms for teachers. The amendment is unlikely to see a vote, though.
“Congress doesn’t think this is a good idea,” Murphy said in a statement. “Parents don’t think this is a good idea. Teachers don’t think this is a good idea. Only Betsy DeVos and the gun industry want this. More kids will be killed in schools if this policy is put in place—plain and simple.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the architects of the 2015 law that created the Title IV grants, told The New York Times he personally opposes arming teachers but the grant program was designed to give states flexibility to decide how to spend school security dollars.
Teachers unions resoundingly rejected the idea. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it “insane” and suggested it would turn the government into “an arms dealer for schools.”
“The idea of arming teachers is ill-conceived, preposterous, and dangerous. Arming teachers and other school personnel does nothing to prevent gun violence,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement Thursday.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, urged Congress to prohibit this proposal during the appropriations process and focus instead on keeping guns away from dangerous people.
“This is outrageous. America’s teachers are already forced to spend their own meager salaries on basic school supplies, but the Trump Administration would rather use taxpayer money to buy them guns,” Feinblatt said.
President Trump has so far been silent on the matter publicly, but he has strongly advocated arming “gun-adept” teachers numerous times since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February.
"Armed Educators (and trusted people who work within a school) love our students and will protect them," Trump tweeted in late February. "Very smart people. Must be firearms adept & have annual training. Should get yearly bonus. Shootings will not happen again - a big & very inexpensive deterrent. Up to States."
Following Parkland, the president also convened the Federal Commission on School Safety, which plans to issue its findings later this year, but it is unclear what, if anything, it may say about guns in schools. DeVos indicated early on that the presence or absence of firearms would not be a focus.
Chaired by the education secretary, the commission is also led by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar. Nielsen led a field visit to Miley Achievement Center in Las Vegas, Nevada Thursday on best practices for school building safety. The school has received a grant from an industry group to install several security upgrades.
The discussion largely dodged questions of whether more or fewer guns would make a difference. According to the Nevada Independent, Nielsen declined to offer an opinion when asked about arming teachers after the meeting.
“I think communities are looking at that individually,” she said. “As you know, some communities do, some communities don’t, so I think each community has to determine what applies best for them. We’re trying to look more at standards and building security, from a DHS perspective.”
The commission will hold its fourth and final public listening session next week in Montgomery, Alabama, following meetings in Kentucky, Wyoming, and Washington, D.C. It has also convened several public meetings with panels of experts discussing specific security issues.
At another site visit in Pearcy, Arkansas earlier this month, Sessions heard testimony from administrators who carry weapons at school and other supporters of armed school staff. No opponents of the policy were present, but they have spoken out at other meetings.
According to Education Week, Cutter Morning Star District Superintendent Nancy Anderson told the commission she once responded armed to gunshots on an elementary school playground, recalling, "I was never so happy, and never so relieved, and never so empowered that I knew I had a gun and I could protect our children."
School security experts warned the thorny and contentious gun debate obscures more urgent safety issues. Despite the outsized media attention attracted by mass shootings, active shooters remain one of the less common emergencies schools may face.
“Frankly, I think the politicization and the attention being paid to the gun issue is a distraction,” said Amanda Klinger, director of operations for the Educator’s School Safety Network. “Obviously we have a problem. Guns are a factor…but if every gun in America magically disappeared tomorrow, we still have school safety issues.”
Ken Trump noted the Arkansas district that Sessions visited where armed educators are allowed remains an exception to typical practices nationwide.
“The reality is, the vast majority of superintendents and school boards have said thanks but no thanks to the idea of arming teachers and support staff and other non-law enforcement people…,” he said. “When people hear about a school that’s chosen to go that route, they may mistakenly believe that is some type of broad field trend. It isn’t.”
According to Chris Dorn, an analyst at Safe Havens International and author of “Staying Alive: How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters,” there are higher security priorities for limited federal funds than paying for firearms. Transportation accidents cause about 10 times as many deaths on school grounds as active shooters, and suicides cause twice as many.
“If we were to look at providing x amount of funding for guns versus other needs schools have, for example, door-locking security, basic communications issues, fundamentals… arming teachers is a response to one very specific kind of incident,” Dorn said.
Ken Trump has seen some positive signs from the school safety commission, but some concerning ones as well. He was particularly troubled by the emphasis on security technology and hardware at recent meetings and the suggestion by some speakers Thursday that security funds be controlled by DHS instead of the Education Department.
“Schools are not courthouses or airports or federal buildings,” Trump said. “They are child-oriented, education-focused community centers.”
Educators and school safety professionals should be leading the discussion, experts say, and they fear those voices are getting drowned out by DHS, law enforcement, and security contractors laser-focused on hardening targets.
“School safety is an educational issue,” Klinger said. “Educators need to be leading the charge. Educators need to have a seat at the table… Educators need to be the tip of the spear.”