(This post has been updated to include an Education Department clarification of DeVos’s comments)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos appeared before a Senate subcommittee Tuesday and was asked whether the Federal Commission on School Safety that she chairs will look at the role of guns. Her answer: Not “per se.”
DeVos was questioned by Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing education funding about the Education Department’s 2019 budget. Their questions covered a range of issues, including why the Trump administration is seeking to cut funding for after-school programs and why she has hired people to deal with student loans who have worked in the troubled for-profit student loan sector. They also asked about her understanding of how to implement the K-12 education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.
DeVos heads the safety commission, which was created by President Trump after the Feb. 14 shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. He charged the commission with looking at a range of issues, including age restrictions for certain firearm purchases.
The panel has three other members: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. DeVos has said the panel will seek “best practices” on how to keep schools safe, and meet with experts and educators before releasing recommendations at the end of the year.
Last week, panel members took the first of four planned field trips to schools, this one to Frank Hebron-Harman Elementary in Hanover, Md., where the commission looked at a program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a strategy used at thousands of schools that emphasizes the teaching of good behavior.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked her whether the commission she leads will look at how school safety is affected by guns and gun violence.
“That is not part of the commission’s charge, per se,” she responded.
He asked her whether she thinks an 18-year-old student should be able to walk into a store and walk out with a semiautomatic rifle and a lot of ammunition.
She responded: “Well, sir, I know that this body and your counterparts on the other side of the Capitol have addressed a number of these issues, and I know you are going to …”
Leahy then interrupted her and said he was trying to give her questions that she could answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” He repeated the question.
She responded: “I believe that is very much a matter for debate, and I know that has been debated within this body and will continue to be …”
He interrupted her again and asked whether the commission was looking at other countries where students spend as much time on social media and video games as American kids but still have much less gun violence in their schools.
Early this year, Trump said, “The level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts.” And in 2016 policy guidance, the American Academy of Pediatrics said: “A sizable majority of media researchers both in pediatrics and psychology believe that existing data show a significant link between virtual violence and aggression. One might justifiably wonder why the contrarian position to media violence is so frequently presented when it is no longer presented for passive smoke exposure.”
DeVos responded: “We had a very important meeting in Maryland at a school in a district that has employed an approach called …”
The senator interrupted, saying, “Maybe I didn’t make myself clear.” And he repeated the question about whether the commission was looking at other countries.
Her response: “Not per se.”
Leahy commented: “Gun violence in school but not look at guns. An interesting concept.”
DeVos said the commission has begun its work “very much focused” on the range of issues and that it comes down to looking at “What is this culture of violence? Where does it come from?”
She noted that “violence can manifest itself in different ways,” at which point Leahy said, “It does seem to me that you should think about reworking the mission of the commission to look at the role of guns” and gun violence in schools.
Not long after the exchange, the Education Department sent an email to reporters saying:
The secretary and the commission continue to look at all issues the President asked the committee to study and are focused on making recommendations that the agencies, states and local communities can implement. It’s important to note that the commission cannot create or amend current gun laws — that is the Congress’ job.
The president’s charge to the commission does in fact address the issue of firearms, including whether to recommend age restrictions for certain firearms purchases, which would speak to Leahy’s question about an 18-year-old buying a semiautomatic weapon. Here’s what the president asked the commission to do:
The commission will study and make recommendations on the following areas of focus:
• Age restrictions for certain firearm purchases.
• Existing entertainment rating systems and youth consumption of violent entertainment.
• Strategies to advance the science and practice of character development in youth and a culture of connectedness.
• Effects of press coverage of mass shootings.
• Repeal of the Obama administration’s “Rethink School Discipline” policies.
• Best practices for school buildings and campus security from federal government components, including the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and also from other state, local and private sector sources.
• A plan for integration and coordination of federal resources focused on prevention and mitigation of active-shooter incidents at schools.
• Opportunities to improve access to mental health treatment, including through efforts that raise awareness about mental illness and the effectiveness of treatment, reduce barriers to the recruitment of mental health professionals, and provide training related to violence prevention.
• Best practices for school-based threat assessment and violence prevention strategies.
• The effectiveness and appropriateness of psychotropic medication for treatment of troubled youth.
• Ensuring that findings are sufficiently supported by existing and additional federal, state and local funding sources.