Upon hearing that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would visit the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High campus after the school shooting that killed 17 people, the student Emma González was wary: “Good thing I was already planning on sleeping in tomorrow,” she tweeted. Other students at Stoneman Douglas reacted in much the same way. “Literally no one asked for this,” Sarah Chadwick, another student, tweeted, referring to DeVos’s visit. It seems this was a popular sentiment—both tweets have received tens of thousands of likes.
DeVos’s visit itself didn’t do much to turn things around. According to a Department of Education press release, she “met with students, teachers, and administrators” and designed the trip based on recommendations from the school principal over how to minimize disruption for the students’ first full day back at school. But after the event, both students and teachers criticized the education secretary for not engaging one-on-one with enough of them and for failing to answer all of their questions, particularly about her plans for preventing future school shootings. Journalists also reported that DeVos abruptly ended her press conference following the visit, after answering just a handful of inquiries. One student tweeted:
Betsy Devos came to my school, talked to three people, and pet a dog. This is incase the press tries to say something else later
— Alanna//#NEVERAGAIN (@AgCI3Cu2) March 7, 2018
That students were skeptical of DeVos wasn’t surprising: The public typically expects an education secretary to offer comfort and direction in the aftermath of a shooting, yet DeVos and the Trump administration already have been known to have a controversial stance on how to address gun violence in schools. As a delegate of the Trump administration, DeVos represents a president who has been a vocal supporter of gun rights, as well as a political party that has strong ties to the National Rifle Association. DeVos herself has also drawn ire for her public commentary on guns, most notoriously for her suggestion at her 2017 confirmation hearing that guns might have a place in schools because of the threat of grizzly bears.
While the #NeverAgain movement—a political campaign around gun control that was spearheaded by Stoneman Douglas students—is nonpartisan, some of its most outspoken activists have been honest about their disdain for Trump and for politicians who take contributions from the NRA, many of whom are Republican or conservative. It’s worth asking whether the students’ movement would have been quite as strong had it bloomed under another administration with a deeper commitment to stricter gun-control legislation—or with higher approval ratings among the American public. Trump has proposed several gun-control measures in response to the shooting, including raising the minimum age for certain firearm purchases and enforcing tighter background checks, but it’s not yet clear whether he will follow through on any specific policy change, and sources suggest he has since backed down from some of these proposals. Trump has also struck a less gun-shy tone tone in other policy proposals, particularly his suggestion of arming teachers as another way to protect schools in the event of a shooting. DeVos, for her part, spoke on Wednesday in general terms about the Trump administration’s dedication to developing bipartisan school-safety solutions.
The backlash to DeVos’s visit raises the question of how the American public expects U.S. education secretaries to respond to school shootings. The education secretary’s role in such situations is a complex one, Maria Voles Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, a pro-public-education think tank, said in an email: “Reacting to localized school shootings from the federal perch is both hard and easy.” Because each state has its own gun laws and school policies, there is a limit to the tangible steps education secretary can take in response to a shooting. Their role is more symbolic, Ferguson argued: “It is (or should be) a no-brainer for the U.S. Secretary of Education to understand that the most important role they can play in the aftermath of a school shooting is that of education ‘comforter-in-chief.’” The best thing education secretaries can do, Ferguson said, is support local officials in their own strategies and methods for moving forward after a shooting.
But in this less tangible way, education secretaries can have a tremendous impact: “They can use [the bully pulpit] to demonstrate leadership and help explain complicated issues. … They can use it to convene disparate stakeholders to talk about issues regarding school violence, mental illness, and gun safety.” And it’s likely that, given DeVos’s prior statements on guns and the Trump administration’s broader platform, those watching DeVos’s visit were eager to see how she’d use her pulpit—and pessimistic about the focus she’d choose.
History suggests that the public was generally less disappointed with responses from education secretaries in Democratic administrations than they seem to be with that of DeVos, likely because many of these officials made explicit calls for increased gun-control legislation in the immediate aftermath of school shootings. Richard Riley, who served as education secretary during the Clinton administration, explicitly mentioned gun control in his response to the Columbine school shooting in 1999: “This tragedy underscores that we are not doing enough to get guns off the streets and out of the hands of criminals,” Riley said in a statement. And Arne Duncan, the first secretary of education under Obama, was personally invested in combating gun violence, having grown up in Chicago and witnessing its effects on students. Duncan responded to school shootings with official statements at a higher frequency than any other education secretary in recent history, and he called for tighter gun-control regulations one week after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting.
Another education secretary who faced public criticism for a school-shooting response was Margaret Spellings, who served under George W. Bush. Spellings was critiqued by some Americans for not making any public statements after a 2005 school shooting on the Red Lake Indian Reservation that took the lives of nine people. Some critics tied the George W. Bush administration’s fairly quiet response to his administration’s priorities, citing the NRA’s influence on Republican politicians and Bush’s history of proposing cuts to certain school-safety funds. (It’s worth noting that the Bush administration reacted more quickly to some other shootings, convening a summit in response to a string of such incidents in 2006).
George Washington University’s Ferguson suggested that Duncan’s responses to school shootings were better received by the public than were DeVos’s because he previously oversaw the Chicago public-school system and had a history of working with gun-violence issues. DeVos, on the other hand, has not worked in a public school nor sent her children to one, and she has long drawn criticism from public-school teachers, parents, and advocates for her lack of investment in public education. “It’s not surprising … that people would have their hackles up and not want to give her the benefit of the doubt,” Ferguson said.
For her part, DeVos called the visit “sobering” and “inspiring.” At a press conference in Parkland on Wednesday, she spoke about the Trump administration’s commitment to pursuing school-safety reforms that would receive widespread, bipartisan support. She also sought to clarify Trump’s controversial suggestion that schools arm teachers, emphasizing that it would be up to individual communities to opt to do this, and that teachers would receive intensive training. The Department of Education gave a $1 million emergency-relief grant to the Broward County Public Schools district.
After the press conference, DeVos praised the introduction of a school-safety bill by Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee and the chairman of the Senate education committee, which would make it easier for public schools to use federal funds for alarm systems, counselors, security cameras, and crisis-intervention training. Critics, however, have claimed that the bill doesn’t do much other than clarify funding options that federal law already allows for, and that it could be a way to avoid discussion of gun-control legislation.
I did, actually. @BetsyDeVosED @BetsyDeVos is an American patriot and is the Sec. of EDUCATION which means she is a great person to talk with about SCHOOL safety. #MSDStrong #NeverAgain https://t.co/uzGDB8Y5Tj
— Kyle Kashuv (@KyleKashuv) March 7, 2018
It’s possible the public had even higher expectations for DeVos’s visit than usual due to a broader sense of frustration with politicians’ typical post-shooting response—and the way that the Parkland students have changed the underlying dynamics of the debate. “The public and the politicians have all followed a fairly predictable script,” said Christopher Loss, an associate professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, “and that script, [which] has been run over and over again from successive administrations … is what the public has finally gotten tired of.”