In an unprecedented move, the Department of Education is considering allowing states to use federal funding to purchase guns for educators, according to many people who know the plan.
In March, Congress passed a school safety bill allocating $50 million a year to local school districts, but specifically prohibited said money for purchasing firearms. As it stands the federal government does not pay to equip schools with any form of weapon.
The department is exploring a program in federal education law, the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, which currently makes no mention of prohibiting any purchase of weapons. This specific omission would permit education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to use her discretion in approving any district or state plans to use the grant funding for firearms and firearm training, unless Congress clarifies the law or bans the funding through legislative action, according to The New York Times.
“The department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety,” said Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department. “The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios.”
As part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the $1 billion student support program is designed to allow academic and enrichment opportunities in the country’s most poor schools and calls for school districts to use the money toward three goals: improving school conditions for learning, providing a well-rounded education, and improving the use of technology for digital literacy.
If the Education Department were to implement the proposal, deparment officials acknowledge this would be the first time that any federal agency has authorized the purchase of weapons without a congressional mandate, according to those familiar with the discussions. Although no such restrictions currently exist in the federal education law, it could very well undermine the grant program’s accepting of “drug and violence prevention,” which defines a school environment that is free of weapons.
According to The New York Times, the Education Department, having researched the issue at great length, has made the determination that the gun purchases would fall under improving school conditions. The department encourages schools, under the current guidelines for that portion of the grant, to reduce suspensions and expulsions, to establish dropout prevention programs, to increase access to mental health counseling, and improve the re-entry programs for students transitioning from the juvenile justice system.
After the school shootings in Santa Fe, Texas, and in Parkland, Florida, the department began analyzing whether or not to expand use of the support grants, which in turn prompted states to inquire about alternatives. If achieved, the measure would break from decades-old practices on how funding is disbursed for the purpose of school security.
The distribution of grants by the Homeland Security Department that are intended for “school preparedness,” for example, noting that weapons and ammunition aren’t permitted. Congress added a rule that prohibits the use of grants for firearms or firearm training in the Stop School Violence Act (shortly after the Parkland shooting), under which the Justice Department will grant funds to school districts.
In considering the proposal, the Education Department has also taken into consideration the fact that school shootings had not been taken into account when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, according to those well-informed on the discussions. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington State, Representative Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, and Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, have all been opposed to the idea of arming teachers with guns.
Post Parkland shooting, the Trump administration assembled a federal commission on school safety, which was led by Ms. DeVos, and explored topics like building security, mental and behavioral health resources, and the role of law enforcement in schools.
The commission has held several public hearings where in advocates and educators from all over the country have asked for expanded support staff and services, including additional security measures and school counselors. According to NYT, the commission plans to issues recommendations by the end of the year.
Ms. DeVos, in June, said the commission would not be considering the role guns play in school shootings, but but later implied the panel would be looking at specific issues, including age limits for the purchase of firearms.
In July, Jason Botel, Ms. DeVos’s assistant secretary for the office of elementary and secondary education, reaffirmed that point during a congressional hearing which prompted Democrat from New Jersey, Representative Donald M. Payne Jr., to question the Education Department. He asked in a letter to Mr. Botel if the department had planned to arm teachers, but the department issues a statement saying it didn’t plan to do so stating, “this is a function appropriately reserved for the states.”
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