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Amid Criticism, Betsy DeVos Meets With School Shooting Survivors, Experts

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is chairing the White House commission on school safety, met Thursday with experts who have studied past school shootings and with teachers, students, and family members who been directly affected by them.

The briefing, which was not open to the public, was intended to help lay the groundwork for work of the administration's school safety commission. The commission is charged with finding solutions for mass shootings in schools, in the wake of February's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. 

The panel is comprised of four cabinet secretaries: DeVos, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, and Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. So far, it has met only once, on March 28. 

Many in the education community are dismayed that the commission includes no educators, or experts, as full fledged members.  And some worry that the commission itself is a stalling technique, delaying a thorny debate over gun control ahead of what's expected to be a tough midterm election for Republicans. (More on that below.)

President Donald Trump and many Republicans have called for "hardening schools" and arming certain school staff, an idea that also has the backing of the National Rifle Association. Democratic leaders meanwhile, have renewed calls for gun control measures. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have sought new resources for mental health and safety, most prominently by increasing funding for the federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, by $700 million, to $1.1 billion.

Thursday's briefing consisted of two panel discussions. The first included experts who have examined past shootings, including those at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, and at Virginia Polytech Institute and State University in 2007. They were:

  • Troy Eid, ex-officio member of the Columbine Review Commission;
  • Michael Mulhare, assistant vice president for Emergency Management at Virginia Tech;
  • Marisa Randazzo, chief research psychologist of the U.S. Secret Service; and
  • William Modzeleski, a senior consultant with several groups specializing in school safety, threat assessment, emergency management and homeland security. 

Two of those experts—Randazzo and Modzeleski—both work at Sigma Threat Management Associates, a consulting organization.

The second panel included people who were directly affected by the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech, as well as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

They were:

"In order to move forward, we must take a hard look back," DeVos said in a statement. "That's why I've asked this panel of experts and survivors to provide me with a clear-eyed look at what has gone wrong in the past, the lessons learned, and areas where we continue to fall short as we work to keep our nation's students and teachers safe at school."

'No Engagement' 

Even though meeting was not open to the public, advocates attended who represent principals, state chiefs, local superintendents, state lawmakers, governors, school psychologists, parents, and others.

But not all of them felt included in the process. "There was no engagement whatever. It was, 'You can sit in here and listen,'" one attendee said.

Another advocate was glad to be there, but still worries that the commission is missing consistent feedback from people who work in schools every day.

"I think we would all say we really appreciated the opportunity to listen," said Jacki Ball, the director of government affairs for the National PTA. "But I really think it's important that the department and the commission gets out and hears from all parents and all educators."

She said that kind of outreach needs to happen sooner rather than later, because school networks are about to slow down over the summer.

Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendent's Association, who attended, also wishes educators were better represented.

"I thought that the variety of the people at the table and in the room was a good start," she said. But she added, "I'm concerned about the continuity of the conversation. There may stakeholders and practioners at the table, but there's something to be said for having the same practioners at every meeting."

The Trump administration has said that having a broader group of educators and experts on the panel itself would slow down the commission's work. Ellerson Ng, though, noted that broad coalitions have successfully written rules for the Every Student Succeeds Act, and could be counted on to make school safety recommendations informed by real classroom experience.

Photo: 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. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

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