Betsy DeVos and guns in schools are a complex problem


Education secretary Betsy DeVos is considering the use of federal funds to arm teachers. Here’s why this could be a hasty and dangerous step.

The issue of guns in schools is by now so fraught that any mention of the matter, no matter how carefully worded or ostentatiously neutral, is bound to set off alarms.

Betsy DeVos, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, has rarely shown herself to be the kind of thoughtful, careful thinker necessary for the subject. Rather, she is a federal education official with next to no experience as a teacher, school administrator, or educator in general. Even if she were more qualified to lead her agency and guide action on a sensitive issue, the image of teachers legally bringing guns into school is working hard against her. So, the notion that her department would use federal funding to give teachers firearms is tipping off serious debate.

In short, DeVos and her associates are considering using the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) Grant to allow school districts to buy guns for teachers. This grant, which has about $1 billion available in funds, has no clear stipulation against buying weapons. That’s in contrast to many other funding sources, which can clearly exclude the use of grant money for weapons.

The SSAE grant can be used to “improve school conditions”, language just vague enough to give pro-gun advocates in this situation a fair amount of wiggle room. Those who advocate for increased gun control are, largely, righteously terrified.

To be fair, this isn’t originally DeVos’ idea. Officials from within her department have said that school districts from Texas and Oklahoma contacted the department, asking if they could use federal grant money to arm teachers. In the most innocent incarnation of this story, the Education Department is merely investigating the matter at the behest of American educators.

The heart of the matter

It’s true that this issue deserves serious attention. It’s also true that, as the highest educational authority in the United States, the Secretary of Education should address the situation. Still, even if DeVos is, in her way, acting as a diligent public servant, the whole matter has once again laid bare some of the rawest issues at the heart of both America’s educational system and its society at large.

More than any other developed country, the United States has dealt with a consistent epidemic of gun violence for decades. While other countries have reached consensus and taken decisive action, that same kind of agreement remains elusive on American soil. There is the matter of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, for one. The right to bear arms is by now a firmly entrenched part of American culture, and the mere notion that someone may come to take away a person’s guns can raise serious hackles. That is especially so in more rural communities and red states, if the statistics are to be believed.

Where does this leave DeVos and her department? Currently, there are no hard and fast federal rules on the matter. Congress could pass a law forbidding DeVos to allocate SSAE grant money in this way, but that’s unlikely given the current climate on Capitol Hill. Until then, DeVos can use her own discretion to determine how money from the SSAE grant will be allocated.

Yet, that doesn’t mean that Secretary DeVos can make a simple decision without long-lasting consequences. Even if it is in response to an information request from a set of schools, surely she must be aware of the larger effects of her department’s move.

What’s making people so upset?

Many questions remain unanswered at this point. For instance, what kind of firearms training will teachers receive? Who among a school’s teachers would be armed? Would DeVos and other educators seek to replace or supplement school resource officers, who are trained law enforcement personnel? What sort of screening procedures would be in place for armed teachers?

How can you guarantee a student’s safety in an environment that is inevitably rife with human fallibility? Furthermore, how would armed educators change the environment of the classroom? Think back to some of your own high school and middle school teachers. If they had a gun on their person — even a legal firearm, with intensive safety training and strict regulations — how would that change your learning? What kind of place would the school become — a place for education or a fortress?

All of these questions and more are on the minds of educators, a significant number of whom are opposed to the idea of becoming armed themselves. Some groups, including teachers unions and gun control advocates, are threatening to sue the Department of Education if gun funding is approved. Even teachers who live and work in traditionally rural, gun-friendly states like South Dakota and Wyoming are slow to take part in existing teacher gun training.

Other options

If no one can agree on anything else, surely it is this: guns are dangerous.

Meanwhile, definitions of “good guys” and “bad guys” can be vague and overly simplistic. There is currently no clear rubric to determine who is dangerous and who is safe and, moreover, who is “safe” enough to carry deadly weapons around children. Neither can anyone agree that bringing more guns into schools will yield tangible, positive results. So, how else could the Department of Education use the $1 billion in this grant?

First, it’s not useful or fair for us to expect that schools can transform overnight into peaceable kingdoms. Until there is a significant shift in how Americans think about guns and how they communicate about the issue, all other measures can’t be much more than legislative or cultural band-aids.

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Still, there are perhaps better moves to be made. Schools could be designed with greater safety in mind, for one. They could also train teachers and administrators in mental health support for their most vulnerable students. In general, teachers could benefit from greater support and better training, especially in terms of how they relate to students and react to violence. A sidearm and a course on gun safety doesn’t quite fit the bill.