Unions, civil rights group pan Trump “school safety” commission’s recommendations
People listen to Jon Newman, a Jonesboro High School teacher, March 24, in Jonesboro, Ark., talk about his experience of the Westside Middle School shooting that occurred 20 years earlier, in Jonesboro. Newman was 12 years old in 1998 when four of his Westside Middle School classmates and one teacher were killed by two armed pupils who fired on a group from a distance after pulling the fire alarm to draw them out. School violence activists and unions say the Trump school safety commission offers little to get excited about. | |Staci Vandagriff / The Jonesboro Sun via AP

WASHINGTON—Teachers unions and a top civil rights group panned “school safety” recommendations from a Trump-named panel of four Cabinet secretaries, saying they do little or nothing to stop the scourge of mass shootings in the nation’s schools.

And one of their recommendations—restoring discrimination in discipline of “problem” students—is thinly veiled racism against young African Americans, to boot, adds one of the leaders, Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten.

The panel, headed by Trump Education Secretary Elizabeth “Betsy” DeVos, noted for her hostility to public schools and her particular hatred of public school teachers and their unions, issued its proposals on Dec. 18 after nine months of study.

The other members were Trump Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, his Acting Attorney General, Matthew Whitaker, and his Homeland Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. There were no teachers, students, or parents on DeVos’s commission.

Their 10 recommendations did not include specifically arming all teachers and other school personnel, as DeVos advocates, and teachers and the March For Our Lives student-led pro-gun control movement strenuously oppose. The panel does advocate weapons training for them by retired police officers.

About the only point March For Our Lives, the union leaders, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—which also criticized the recommendations—and DeVos’s panel agree upon is more attention to mental health and its warning signs of aggression.

DeVos established the panel after the Valentine’s Day massacre of 14 students and three teachers, all AFT members, by an AR-15-wielding gunman at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

That slaughter began the Douglas student-led national March For Our Lives movement, which has changed the national discussion, and voting patterns last month, in favor of gun control. Turnout among youthful voters, many motivated by March For Our Lives, zoomed from 20 percent in the last off-year election in 2014 to 31 percent this fall, exit polls show.

DeVos’s panel heard testimony from students, parents, and teachers, but did not include them in its deliberations. DeVos trotted out a pro-GOP Douglas parent to laud the conclusions.

Ernest Logan, president of the School Administrators, neatly summarized all the union leaders’ reactions in a tweet: “#schoolsafety report by @usdoegov panel had no school leaders, educators, parents, or students—shows that the Trump administration isn’t really interested in pursuing real-world solutions.”

In a longer statement, Logan called the panel report “a whitewash.”

“The report barely acknowledges the role easy access to guns plays in school shootings,” Logan said in his more-extended statement. “Until we as a nation address the gun issue, we will never solve the problem.”

The other union leaders also caustically criticized the report, as did Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and a former Obama-era Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. March For Our Lives has yet to respond to an e-mail asking for comment.

“The report doesn’t address the root causes of the gun violence epidemic: Too many guns in our communities and not enough investment in addressing the social-emotional health of our kids. And, sadly, the Trump administration has no coherent plan to address this crisis,” said Weingarten.

Weingarten’s politest statement for the report’s recommendations was that it’s “a missed opportunity” to bring the nation together on the issues of protecting students and combating gun violence.

Weingarten contended the DeVos panel report agrees with “some worthy strategies already recommended by students, teachers, and school staff,” such as more school counselors, preventing cyberbullying, and extreme risk protection orders banning firearms for people deemed threats. “But it does not contain a single proposal for new funding for these initiatives.”

“What’s more, the commission appears to punt on the question of arming teachers, rather than taking a strong stance against it, even though parents, students, and teachers agree: Putting more guns in schools only risks making schools less safe. But Betsy DeVos continually advocates for this lunacy.”

“The report doesn’t recommend age restrictions on firearms and appears more concerned with the National Rifle Association and the school security industry than with the needs of the people in classrooms,” Weingarten, a middle school teacher from New York City, said.

Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, a primary-grades teacher from Salt Lake City, who heads the National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, agreed.

“Instead of the Federal Commission on School Safety taking its charge seriously—addressing gun laws in this country and putting supports in place for students after the horrors of Parkland, Marshall County, Santa Fe and the countless other school shootings that have occurred this year—Betsy DeVos and the commission are doing the exact opposite.

“The recommendations do little to make students safer in our nation’s public schools. They are dishonoring the memory of the students and educators who have lost their lives,” she said.

And all three leaders, plus Gupta, slammed the DeVos commission’s recommendation, which she plans to put into effect, to restore discrimination by race in school discipline.

“This is so deeply offensive,” Gupta tweeted, saying it is the federal government’s mandate to ensure that all children can attend school free from racial discrimination and harm. Gupta complained that DeVos and her commission have “made a mockery of this mandate.”

“Most curious and disappointing is the report’s use of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to push an anti-civil rights agenda that won’t keep schools safe,” Weingarten stated.

DeVos “suggests rolling back Obama-era school discipline guidance intended to help prevent the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ youth — under the guise of making schools safer. The shooter at Stoneman Douglas had in fact been expelled and reported to law enforcement; rescinding discipline guidance and kicking kids out of school doesn’t prevent school shootings.”

Asked by e-mail if Weingarten feels the report says, in so many words, that “Black kids are violent, so we should discipline them more or kick them out,” spokeswoman Oriana Korin replied: “That’s what we feel the report says.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.