Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 23, 2018
After the Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., President Trump set up a commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to study what to do to make schools safer.
In its report out this week, naturally then, the commission tested the political waters and veered sharply away from anything resembling recommendations for stronger gun control.
No, instead, their answers are improved mental health services and training (which they won’t pay for) of school personnel to carry guns. And, curiously, the commission identified the big new idea as rescinding Obama-era school disciplinary policies, which had been adopted as a partial response to institutionalized racism.
Now, we should acknowledge at the same time, perhaps coincidentally, the White House announced it would ban gun bump stocks — the add-on device that turns semi-automatic weapons into something more like an automated machine gun — as a rule change. The new regulation, which may be challenged in court, would ban the sale or possession of bump stocks, and owners would have 90 days to destroy their devices or to turn them in to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Justice Department initially had said the executive branch lacked authority to ban bump stocks, but now has changed its mind.
Of course, the high school shootings did not involve a weapon with bump stocks, but the October, 2017 Las Vegas shootings did.
It seems as if theFederal Commission on School Safety, which included four cabinet officials, was an exercise of weird, partisan political logic — as befits our times in the Trump Kingdom. While I care about the subjects at hand, what prompts this column is the new insistence that policies must follow the predetermined ideology, in this case, Trump gun statements record, rather than practical solution based on fact.
The commission said the report came after months of research as well as political conflicts. In the end, the reportlargely echoed the public statements of the president, who has repeatedly and publicly promoted the idea of arming school officials and went so far as to backa proposal by the National Rifle Association that would give those officials a bonus.
So, in pursuit of any answer not involving gun control in a nation where there are more guns than people, here’s what the commission concluded:
· It recommended that schools give weapons to staff members in communities that want them, but said no federal funds would be offered to buy or train local school staff.
· It concluded that “existing research does not demonstrate that laws imposing a minimum age for firearms purchases have a measurable impact on reducing homicides, suicides or unintentional deaths.”
· It did recommend that schools and communities examine ways to carry out extreme risk protection orders to temporarily seize firearms from people who appear mentally disturbed, though it emphasized that such efforts should be carried out without affecting “Second Amendment liberties.”
· The report identified school discipline as a problem, and said an Obama-era policy that advised schools on how to discipline students in a nondiscriminatory manner should be dismissed, arguing that the rule pressured schools to keep dangerous students in school. Indeed, the commission said schools should put “character education” programs in place and urged federal agencies to help states address cyberbullying, an advocacy issue of First Lady Melania Trump.
The key conclusion: “There is no universal school safety plan that will work for every school across the country,” the report said. “Such a prescriptive approach by the federal government would be inappropriate, imprudent and ineffective. We focused instead on learning more about, and then raising awareness of, ideas that are already working for communities across the country.”
In other words, the report went a long way around the issues to avoid talking about the main issue at hand — gun ownership and abuse. That was an approach that won immediate praise from the NRA.
Besides DeVos, the other members of the commission included Matthew G. Whitaker, the acting attorney general, who took the place of Jeff Sessions after he resigned; Alex M. Azar II, the secretary of health and human services, and Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security.
Most curious to me was the decision to focus on an Obama-era policy that advised schools on how to discipline studentsin a nondiscriminatory manner and examine education data for racial disparities that could flag a federal civil rights violation. Though the guidance is nonbinding, critics have argued that the edict pressured districts to keep policies that allowed dangerous students to stay in schools.
A senior administration official said the plan would be rescinded because research had found a “recurring narrative” that teachers and students felt threatened by the idea that people “trending toward violent behavior were left unpunished or unchecked.”
The report said the Obama administration had a flawed interpretation of Title VI, the federal law that prevents discrimination based on race, in concluding that evenly applied policies may have a disparate impact on certain racial groups. The report said that theory, “lacks foundation in applicable law and may lead schools to adopt racial quotas or proportionality requirements.”
DeVos had been considering rescinding the guidelines for more than a year, but moved based in part on the fact that the Parkland suspect, Nikolas Cruz, had been part of an alternative discipline program called Promise in Broward County Public Schools.
Documents obtained by The Times — a draft letter and a draft chapter of the safety commission’s research — focus significantly on race and promote the idea that the federal crackdown on potentially discriminatory practices has made schools more dangerous.
Mr. President, laurels for the bump stock decision, however long it took to concoct, but darts on the larger issues of making us safer.