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DeVos Has 'No Intention of Taking Any Action' on Issue of Schools Buying Guns

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told congressional Democrats Friday that she has "no intention" of taking any action or position when it comes to whether schools can use federal funds under the Every Student Succeeds Act to purchase firearms for teachers.

"Let me be clear: I have no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff under the ESEA...Congress did not authorize me or the department to make those decisions," DeVos wrote in response to a letter from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and dozens of other Democratic lawmakers.

The letter comes after the New York Times, and later, other media, said that DeVos was considering allowing states to use funding from the $1.1 billion Student Success and Academic Enrichments grants, or Title IV of ESSA, to arm teachers.

DeVos' comments also come after a top official in her department, asked about arming teachers in an interview with the Associated Press, said states and local jurisdictions always "had the flexibility" to decide how to use federal education funds.

Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, said arming educators "is a good example of a profoundly personal decision on the part of a school or a school district or even a state."

President Donald Trump has said he thinks arming teachers could help prevent or handle school shootings. And DeVos said she thinks that districts should have the option of arming school staff, if they think that's what's right for them.

So what is DeVos really saying in this letter? The letter appears to make it clear that the secretary will not proactively issue guidance saying that it is okay for districts to spend their Title IV funds on guns or firearms training for teachers.  

But, importantly, DeVos also did not say that she would stop a district from using federal funding to arm teachers, if the district decided that was the best use of its Title IV funding. Brogan's comments to the AP suggest that the department believes this should be a local decision.

That's in line with the reasoning of Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., an architect of ESSA. Alexander doesn't think arming teachers is a great idea. But he does think that ESSA, and particularly the portion pertaining to Title IV, is written flexibly enough that districts would have the option of spending their funds this way, if that's what they decide is best.

Scott, another ESSA author, has a different take. He notes that ESSA contains language defining "drug and violence prevention programs" as creating school environments that are "free of weapons." That, he said, means that districts can't use the money to arm teachers or purchase firearms.

Scott clearly saw the letter as an indication that DeVos and company would allow districts to use ESSA funds to purchase firearms, even if the department wasn't planning to say so explicitly.

He called on his congressional colleagues to make it clear the funds can't be used this way.

"Arming teachers will recklessly endanger both students and educators," Scott said in a statement. "It is outrageous that Secretary DeVos will allow federal education funds to be spent putting guns in the classroom. If Secretary DeVos refuses to adhere to congressional intent and the administration's own policy regarding the purchase of firearms for school security, Congress must make clear that no taxpayer money can be used to arm America's teachers." 

Look for this issue to come up again. Congress is currently considering spending bills for fiscal year 2019, which generally impacts the 2019-2020 school year. It's possible that lawmakers will insert language clarifying whether districts can use Title IV to buy guns or train educators on how to use them. Scott, for one, appears to be all for it. 

Which districts might be interested in using federal funding to arm teachers? Some educators from rural areas have told the Federal School Safety Commission—which was set up to make recommendations in response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.—that they support the policy. That's because police would have to travel long distances to stop a shooting and may not arrive on time.

"We're not willing to take that chance," Lake Hamilton, Ark., schools Superintendent Steve Anderson, who carries a gun at school, told the commission earlier this summer. "We need someone to protect our kids."

But other teachers have said they don't think carrying a gun would make their schools safer.

"You must understand how fast shootings happen and how chaotic and confusing it is. There's no way to determine who and where the gunfire is coming from. Say I had a gun. Would I have left my terrified children? Never," said Abbey Clements, a 4th grade teacher for the Newtown public schools in Connecticut, who was teaching at Sandy Hook Elementary School the day in 2012 that 26 students and teachers were killed there.

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)

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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