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DeVos’s Response to School Shootings? Make School More Like Prison

Trump and DeVos are using gun violence to justify rolling back civil rights and militarizing public schools.

US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announces changes in federal policy on rules for investigating sexual assault reports on college campuses at George Mason University's Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia, on September 7, 2017.

If you ask the all-white school safety commission established by President Trump in the wake of the deadly mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, earlier this year, there is little evidence that laws restricting gun sales would make public schools safer. Instead, schools and states should “seriously consider the option of partnering with local law enforcement in the training and arming of school personnel,” Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told reporters on Tuesday.

The Trump administration is also expected to rescind a landmark 2014 civil rights guidance aimed at protecting students of color and students with disabilities from discrimination when schools dole out disciplinary actions that push children out of the classroom. The Obama-era guidance resulted from years of grassroots organizing against the school-to-prison pipeline.

That guidance became a target of pro-gun conservatives after the shooting spree at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland left 17 dead in February and sparked a student-led movement for gun control laws. Nikolas Cruz, the man charged in the Parkland shooting, had been expelled from school prior to his rampage and, like the vast majority of mass shooters, is both white and male. The FBI had received a warning about Cruz, and multiple law enforcement officials are under fire from investigators for security lapses and failing to appropriately respond to the shooting.

“It defies logic for them to go after the guidance in a report that is really called for due to gun violence,” said Tyler Whittenberg, a former educator and the deputy director of the Advancement Project’s initiative for ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

It’s all in a report released Tuesday by the Federal Commission on School Safety. The Commission is led by DeVos, a champion of charter schools who kept a low media profile this year after emerging as the least popular member of Trump’s cabinet. The report and its recommendation to rescind the civil rights guidance has infuriated civil rights groups, advocates for students with disabilities, as well as current and former students who have organized for years to keep police and excessive surveillance out of public schools.

“[The Commission] gave itself an opportunity to not do what it was asked to do and go after yet another form of civil rights protections,” Whittenberg told Truthout. “We’ve already seen them go after transgender students and even protections for victims of sexual assault, and now they are going after students who may be discriminated [against] by school officials.”

Gun Control Off the Table

Instead of addressing the root causes of school shootings, civil rights groups say the report embraces policies that would only widen the school-to-prison pipeline, where schools — particularly in Black and Brown communities — are heavily policed and “zero-tolerance” discipline policies push students out of classrooms and into incarceration. The report explores the concept of “hardening” schools by installing video surveillance, metal detectors, restricting access points, installing reinforced and even bullet-proof doors and windows and enhancing partnerships with the police.

“Efforts to harden schools will only criminalize youth of color while perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Jonathan Stith, national coordinator of the Alliance for Educational Justice (AEJ), in a statement. “We must continue to demilitarize our nation’s public schools and divest from policing strategies that provide only the illusion of safety.”

Cruz legally purchased the gun used to massacre faculty and fellow students at the age of 19, sparking nationwide, student-led protests for gun control. However, the Commission’s report says most school shooters obtain their weapons from friends or family members and does not recommend restrictions on gun sales. Instead, it recommends that states offer training and resources for safe firearm storage at home, and expand laws allowing for “extreme risk protection orders” that temporarily restrict access to guns for at-risk individuals.

The report recommends that school administrators “consider arming some specially selected and trained school personnel” to deter school shootings. Senior administration officials said the report was not proposing that federal funds be used to arm public school employees, but suggested that highly-trained staff ranging from custodians to administrators and teachers could in some instances have access to firearms.

These findings are sure to anger gun-control advocates, but for civil rights groups, the report’s focus on the civil rights guidance and school militarization flies in the face of years of work toward ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Conservatives have argued the guidance made it more difficult to discipline and remove potentially violent students, out of fear that the school may lose federal funding. Whittenberg said the guidance is just that — a guidance for adhering to civil rights laws already on the books.

“The law has not changed, the guidance was not mandatory,” Whittenberg said. “It simply encouraged the use of best practices that lead to reduction in disparities in suspensions and expulsions of students of color and students with disabilities.”

Heavy Policing in Schools

Federal data clearly show that students with disabilities and students of color are disproportionately expelled and suspended from public schools, and Whittenberg said grassroots activists pushed the Obama administration to issue the guidance to help schools address this disparity. However, the Commission’s report dismisses the data as “mere statistical disparity” and declares that the federal government must strike a balance between student safety and implementing educational policies in a “racially neutral fashion.”

“Clearly everyone who is racist isn’t going to tell you they are racist before they suspend you,” Whittenberg said. “They are simply ignoring the history of America and the fact that we have a racial problem.”

Whittenberg said that some of the report’s recommendations may be attractive to “officer-friendly” schools in white areas, but it’s common knowledge that students of color are policed differently from white students. Earlier this year, the Advancement Project released a report detailing the racial history of policing in education, and how the increasing presence of police in schools has led to the systemic criminalization of students of color.

“In a ‘hardened’ school, Black and Brown students are socialized to learn that police will always be around them, to do what they are told and always to be quiet, and the prison-like atmosphere that the [Commission’s] report talks about extending will be part of their life for the foreseeable future,” Whittenberg said.

Civil rights groups argue schools should be investing in programs that support students and respond to conflicts and disciplinary violations with restorative justice that helps students grow, rather than heavy policing and firearms training for staff. DeVos’s decision to abandon anti-discrimination efforts is rooted in a belief that certain students belong to an underclass that is unworthy of “supportive learning environments and protection,” according to a statement from the AEJ and the Advancement Project.

Administration officials said the Commission’s recommendations are not “one-size-fits-all” and are designed to give local school districts flexibility to make schools safer with help from law enforcement and without top-down direction from the federal government. Civil rights groups say the Trump administration has taken the issue of gun violence and twisted it to justify the militarization of the nation’s public school system.

“They are saying, basically, go ahead and finish the job, make it a prison,” Whittenberg said.

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