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Books, Not Magazines: Outcry Grows over DeVos Plan to Divert Federal Funds For Guns in Schools

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Pressure is growing for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reject plans to grant federal funds to states to purchase firearms for teachers and school employees. The proposal comes after requests from Oklahoma, Texas and other states to train and arm school marshals. DeVos’s plan would use federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants to pay for firearms and to train educators in their use, and would reverse long-standing federal policy prohibiting federal funds for arming educators. We speak with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and Adam Skaggs, chief Counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, as students across the country return to school, we turn now to calls by House Democrats for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to reject plans to grant federal funds to states to purchase firearms for teachers and school employees. The proposal comes after requests from Oklahoma, Texas and other states to train and arm school marshals. More than 170 Democrats—about 90 percent of the caucus—endorsed the letter to DeVos, arguing she has the authority to say no to such spending. The letter was organized by Representative Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee. It argues, quote, “Arming teachers would not only jeopardize student and staff health and safety, but also run counter to Congressional intent, precedent, and common sense.”

AMY GOODMAN: DeVos’s plan would use federal Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants to pay for firearms and to train educators in their use, and would reverse long-standing federal policy prohibiting federal funds for arming teachers. Last week, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut spoke out against DeVos’s proposal, arguing it goes against guidelines about the use of Title IV federal funding.

SEN. CHRIS MURPHY: Title IV language allows for money to be used to try to quell violence, but there’s a specific phrase here that seems to give clear guidance to the secretary, because you can use the grants for a school environment that is free of weapons. And yet, reportedly, the secretary is about to issue guidance saying that that money can be used to load schools up with weapons. That is in direct contravention of the statute itself, and certainly in contravention of the spirit of federal education law, given the act that we passed earlier this year that prohibits school safety dollars from being used to arm teachers.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, speaking last week. Murphy’s district is home to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that killed 20 children who were 6 and 7 years old, along with six adult staff members.

Well, we’re joined by Randi Weingarten now, president of the American Federation of Teachers. Also with us, Adam Skaggs, chief counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Adam Skaggs, let’s begin with you. Talk about this proposal that Betsy DeVos is weighing.

ADAM SKAGGS: Well, I think this proposal is, to put it in simple terms, outrageous. You know, this violates every piece of evidence about what we need to keep student environments, to keep our schools safe. To put it simply, at a time when we are seeing schools that lack the resources to buy books, to buy school supplies for our classrooms, the idea of diverting federal funds to be used to arm teachers is not only a terrible idea, as you heard Senator Murphy saying, we believe it’s unlawful, as well, and violates federal law.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Randi Weingarten, the idea of using federal funds that were earmarked to assist low-income or troubled schools and turn them into basically a subsidy for the gun industry?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: It’s insane. I mean, it’s reprehensible. It’s insane. It’s morally outrageous. But think about it. The funds that she wants to use, first off, last year she tried to get rid of these funds. These go for summer school programs, after-school programs, guidance counselors, restorative justice, helping kids learn how to defuse crisis, mental health supports, which everyone—regardless of where you are on the gun debate in America, everyone believes we need to have more mental health supports in schools. And it’s targeted to places that can’t afford it, to poor kids. And so she, you know, hasn’t come out with any of the things that we should be doing, but she wants to divert these funds for something that will make schools less safe. It’s repugnant.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the reaction among teachers that you represent and teachers that you don’t represent? What’s the general sentiment?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: I would say that—I would say that I’m being calm compared to the reaction that I get. Well, look, there are some teachers who have said to me—I’ve been in the Parkland schools after—I’ve been in Parkland, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, junior high school next door, spent some time—many times in Newtown since after Sandy Hook, and people sometimes are scared, and people say, “Look, maybe I should. Maybe I want to.” So I’m not saying that this is a universal position. But the more you think about it, the more you realize how unsafe this is. And it’s, frankly, the people who know how to use guns who have talked to me—NRA members—about just how insane this is.

Think about it, Juan. A kindergarten teacher wearing a holster with a handgun, what does that say to her children? Or where would you put guns? How would you safely lock them up? What do you do, in terms of this false sense of safety, if somebody is coming in with a weapon of war that can shoot 60, 80, a hundred bullets a minute? So, it both creates a false sense of security, and it will be more dangerous in schools. As Adam said, the only entity it seems to help is the NRA and the gun manufacturers. And that’s why we are adamantly against it. Why don’t we do things that make sense—mental health supports, things like the red flag laws, which are extraordinary orders of protection that a family could get, a police officer could, maybe an educator could get, as Governor Cuomo has suggested, so that if you see a kid who may be a danger to himself or to others, you go to a judge, and you ask, with due process, to see if we can actually assure that that kid doesn’t have guns? There are ways we can handle this. Arming teachers is not one of them.

AMY GOODMAN: I can also only think about the fact where the money is coming from, using federal funding. I mean, they’re saying Oklahoma is asking for this. The Oklahoma teachers went out on strike—


AMY GOODMAN: —among the lowest-paid in the country. And as they’re striking, they’re providing lunches to the kids, because they know if the kids aren’t in school, they’re going to go hungry.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Lunches, books, school supplies. I mean, 25 states spend less on education today than they did before the recession, including Oklahoma. Forty-one states spend less on higher education. And this fund—this pot of money was for those kind of emotional supports.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to turn to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, who introduced the, quote, “Sentry Program” in the state earlier this year, enabling school administrators to carry guns.

GOV. KAY IVEY: Those school administrators who volunteer to be a part of the Alabama Sentry Program will be trained by the SAFE Council’s created school safety training and compliance teams, using an A-L-E-A—ALEA-designed training program, and they will be designated as a reserve deputy sheriff, authorizing them to respond to an active shooter. Volunteer administrators must undergo mental and physical fitness evaluations and a drug screening before being certified as a sentry and as a part of an annual recertification process. They must also have an up-to-date concealed-carry permit issued by the local sheriff.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Governor Kay Ivey. Earlier this year, 17 students and faculty were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, sparking nationwide protests against gun violence in schools. Following that massacre, President Trump hosted a listening session with students and families affected by the Parkland shooting, as well as families affected by past school shootings. Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were also in attendance. During the session, Trump suggested the solution to school shootings is arming teachers.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’s called concealed carry, where a teacher would have a concealed gun on them. They’d go for special training, and they would be there, and you would no longer have a gun-free zone. Gun-free zone, to a maniac—because they’re all cowards—a gun-free zone is, “Let’s go in, and let’s attack, because bullets aren’t coming back at us.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Adam Skaggs, what about this, the president’s position of concealed carry for teachers?

ADAM SKAGGS: Well, look, I think it’s a terrible idea. I think what we need for our teachers is we need adequate resources, so that they have the supplies, the books, classroom materials that they need to teach our children. Look, we all agree that our schools should be safe environments. They should be welcoming, inclusive environments for our educators and for our students. Introducing more guns for nonprofessional law enforcement—for teachers, for classroom assistants—is just not the way to get this done.

I think when you look at the fact that groups like Giffords Law Center, which works on gun safety issues, groups like the American Federation of Teachers, we’re working together with the Southern Poverty Law Center—this is an unprecedented coalition of groups that care about different issues, that focus on educational environments, that focus on gun safety, but we’ve all come together because we all recognize that this is a terrible idea that’s going to make our students less safe. When you introduce guns into the classroom, you introduce the possibility the gun will be lost, there will be an accidental discharge, not to even underestimate the idea that a teacher under a stressful circumstance might use the weapon inappropriately. So, the risks that this piles on are numerous.

And on top of that, I think, as Randi said before, you have to think about what this says to a student in a classroom to see armed guards or to see teachers carrying guns. What does that do to the students? Leaving aside the risk of someone being shot, what does that say that students are in this kind of environment? And I think what it says is not something that we want to tell our children.

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Skaggs, very quickly, today’s latest news, a Texas firearms entrepreneur announcing he’s selling 3D gun blueprints online, despite the court order that essentially banned the distribution of such data online, explain the significance of this.

ADAM SKAGGS: Well, what we see is a company inTexas that wants to make downloadable guns on the internet available for anyone anywhere to download and essentially build their own gun. These are people—these guns would be accessible to people that can’t go to a gun store and buy a firearm because they’d fail a background check. Children who are not old enough to buy guns could construct something that would have the firepower of a traditional weapon, not to mention the fact that these plastic guns can actually make it through a metal detector, and obviously present numerous security risks because of that. So, at a time that we’re trying to keep people safe from gun violence, the idea that we would be making lethal weapons available to dangerous people who can’t pass a background check is simply a terrible idea. And thankfully, law enforcement across the country is working to combat this in states across the country.

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