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Sen. Murphy Demands Clarity From Betsy DeVos On Grants That Could Arm Teachers

Senator Chris Murphy speaks at a news conference in Hartford
Senator Chris Murphy speaks at a news conference in Hartford

With school in session and safety top of mind for parents, students, teachers and politicians, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is demanding clarity and accountability from U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 

He’s asking her to testify before Congress to address concerns about a proposal that could allow school districts to buy guns for teachers.

In late August, DeVos said she had no intention of taking any action that would “expand or restrict” how states decide to spend federal funding from the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants. It’s her inaction that Murphy says is a problem.

“The Department of Education exists in some way to tell states what they can and can’t use federal dollars for—they do it all the time,” Murphy said during a press conference on Friday. “So it would be a very proper exercise of her authority as secretary to say Congress has made it clear that you can’t use federal education dollars to arm schools. She chose not to do that. She chose tell Congress that she will take no action and preserve the flexibility in the law.”

Murphy, along with other Democratic members of the U.S. Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, sent a letter requesting that DeVos testify before them.

“We need to talk to Betsy DeVos about why she thinks the law allows her to do this... and why she believes it’s so important to put guns inside schools and what she thinks is her legal authority to do it,” he said. 

Murphy was joined at the press conference by Connecticut education administrators, including Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, a former teacher herself.

“Schools need to be places where our students feel safe and welcome,” Wentzell said. “They come and are ready to learn and they should not be turned into barracks or fortresses.”

Among other concerns expressed during the press conference were the potential for confusing armed teachers with an armed shooter if a shooting was to take place; sending the wrong message to students about guns; and depleting resources that could otherwise be used for academic enrichment.

In Connecticut, the department said educators and administrators are focused on offering more restorative justice and emotional intelligence-centered curriculum, providing more mental health counselors and therapists, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

The language within the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in 2015, says more about what can be done with the funds -- like improving access to academic resources and technology in underfunded school districts -- than what can’t. There is no mention of prohibiting gun purchases.

Frank Brogan, the federal Dept. of Education’s 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.”

In Texas, school employees can undergo training that allows them to carry weapons or have access to firearms on school grounds. The three goals of the ESSA are, “providing a well-rounded education, improving school conditions for learning and improving the use of technology for digital literacy.”

According to research by the department, purchasing guns could qualify as improving school conditions.

If the department moves forward without clarifying exactly what can and can’t be done with the grants, it could be the first time a federal agency allowed gun purchases without a congressional mandate.

Copyright 2018 Connecticut Public Radio

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