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As DeVos School Safety Panel Meets, Educators Blast Exclusion of School Voices

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The White House school safety commission chaired by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos held its first, closed-door meeting Wednesday, amid a chorus of concern about its makeup and process among educators and advocates. 

The commission will make policy recommendations in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead. In addition to DeVos, its membership consists includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, but no educators or experts.

Wednesday's meeting was not open to the public, or press. But the department has told advocates it plans to reach out to the education community, and hold forums around the country in the future. No word yet on where and when these meetings will take place. 

The commission discussed staffing, coordination with state and local authorities, and plans for getting input from people impacted by school safety issues, according to a summary of the meeting released by the department.

"We had a great first meeting of the school safety commission today, it was very productive," DeVos said in a video that she tweeted out after the meeting. "President Trump has given us a very clear mandate and mission and we are eager to get to work on behalf of the students and teachers in this country. We are full speed ahead and are going to be traveling across the country to meet with those who have ideas and solutions [on] how to ensure our students and teachers' safety."

Educators—and their advocates in Washington—are less than thrilled that the commission includes just four cabinet secretaries, and that its first, organizational meeting wasn't public. They raised criticism even before the meeting took place. 

Amanda Karhuse, the director of advocacy for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said the commission needs to include educator voices in order to be credible. DeVos, she said, just doesn't have the necessary hands-on experience.

"Part of the issue with the secretary, and why we had opposed her nomination from the very beginning, is that she has no real practical experience working in a public school setting and she hasn't made it an effort to be out there going to schools," Karhuse said. She worries the commission is "just going to develop recommendations based on the knee-jerk reaction."

She urged the commission and other policymakers to seek advice from school leaders who have successfully prevented school shootings and similar incidences.

"They need to be talking to people who have been able to avert things like this," Karhuse said.

Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendent's Association, said, "We are disappointed at the lack of local voice infusion from the early stages of the commission, as well as the closed nature of today's meeting. We note that today's meeting is unneccesarily political and partisan, composed of solely political appointees. We are cautiously optimistic that subsequent meetings will remedy all of these missteps, and we look forward to working with other education colleagues to ensure robust practitioner voice to increase the likelihood of commission success."

But Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said Tuesday that the education community is "absolutely not being 'left out.'"

"Like we said previously, this is an an organizational meeting for primary members to discuss staffing, timelines, scope, locations for field engagements. Advocates, parents, teachers, students, administrators, law enforcement, mental health professionals, and others with be actively engaged in the commission's work," she said.  

A department official sent an email to a handful of advocacy groups Tuesday, noting that the meeting Wednesday would "set the stage" for future outreach to educators, advocates, parents, students, and others.

But that didn't placate some advocacy groups. Both national teachers' unions blasted out statements expressing dismay with the commission's makeup and lack of transparency so far.

"Teachers and parents have gotten pretty used to Education Secretary DeVos shutting us out and refusing to listen to those closest to our students, so it's no surprise we weren't invited to or consulted before the first meeting of her commission on how to make schools safer," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. "After all, what do we know? We're just the people who educate in, learn, in and send their kids to public schools."

Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, had a similar take—and she slammed the closed-door meeting.

"Given the previous actions of DeVos, we're not surprised that today's meeting is closed to the media and happening away from the eyes of the public," she said in a statement. "The commission's clear purpose is to push an agenda that is focused on a dangerous and misguided plan to put more guns in schools by arming teachers and other school personnel. All of this is a distraction from the real problem: Very dangerous people have very easy access to very dangerous weapons."

It isn't just inside-the-Beltway advocacy organizations that are frustrated by the commission's process and composition. Rank-and-file educators are unhappy too.

It's hard for a cabinet secretary—or anyone who isn't in a real school building day after day—to make practical recommendations about school safety, said Joe Erardi, who was the superintendent of the Newtown, Conn., from early 2014 until the summer of 2017, concurred. The district is home to Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of another fatal mass shooting in late 2012. 

Erardi already dismayed that DeVos has voiced support for arming certain teachers to help combat and prevent shootings. He considers this one of the "absolute worst solutions" to the gun violence problem. And he thinks the commission needs to include some educators.

"I'm really concerned when you take noneducators and they sit to craft policy and to craft guidelines for school leaders without having a school leader at the table," he said. "If you don't have the practioner [perspeciptive], what a mess."

Michael Sheppard, the superintendent of Ohio's 6,000-student Berea school district, in the Cleveland suburbs, concurred. 

"People who are working in schools on a daily basis have a clear understanding of the operations and daily routines and also have a lot more knowledge about their facilities and their facility needs," he said. "Unless you are actively involved in a school, it's hard to get a really good sense of what needs to be done."

Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos speaks at a news conference on March 7, in Coral Springs, Fla., following a visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)


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