Last week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and other members of a federal school safety commission, formed in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, toured a Hanover elementary school looking at how a program called PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) can improve student behavior. It’s a promising technique that looks at discipline in a much more holistic and evidence-based manner than was done in years past. But even its most ardent supporters will acknowledge it can’t prevent a student from purchasing a gun, or bringing it to school or, worst of all, using it to kill classmates and teachers.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to hear from Secretary DeVos this week that the entire subject of guns is off the table for the Federal Commission on School Safety that she chairs. In her testimony Tuesday before a Senate subcommittee, she said the group will not be looking at guns in the context of school safety. “We are actually studying school safety and how we can ensure our students are safe at school,” she insisted. Her spokeswoman later pointed out that the commission does not have the authority to “create or amend gun laws — that is the Congress’ job.”
And that kind of passing the buck is, of course, the problem. There is absolutely no reason why Secretary DeVos or anyone else associated with the commission — and that includes Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and Homeland Secretary Secretary Kirstjen M. Nielsen — can’t recommend best practices regarding most anything having to do with keeping schools safe and let elected officials take it from there. When the commission was announced by President Donald J. Trump in March even he assumed that guns would be included in the mix. In the White House press release describing the commission’s work, looking at “age restrictions for certain firearm purchases” was listed as the commission’s first area of “focus.” It didn’t bother to mention that Congress would have to take action to raise the minimum age to purchase a gun under federal law. Everyone knows that.
That members of the Trump cabinet might be having second thoughts about even talking about guns and gun control may be disappointing, but it’s hardly surprising. The National Rifle Association is the cyberbully of the Republican Party. And while the president has sometimes indicated he might be willing to challenge the powerful gun lobby (he’s openly questioned whether someone at age 18 should be able to purchase a semi-automatic rifle like the one used in Parkland, Fla.), he’s always ended up back in line with the Second Amendment absolutists, telling NRA conventioneers in Dallas last month that he wants more armed teachers and an end to treating schools as “gun-free zones.”
Now, we don’t doubt that improved school disciplinary procedures can lead to fewer current and former high school students seeking to exact their revenge. So might the hiring of more school counselors and psychologists. These are areas worthy of investigation. But ask anyone who works in the field of mental health care, there are no certainties when it comes to human behavior. Even the finest, most alert, best trained school counselor can’t control everything that’s happening in a student’s life or brain chemistry or predict what might happen to that individual in the future. At some point, certain safeguards have to be put in place. Minimum ages to buy the most dangerous weapons — or stricter laws requiring adults to keep those weapons under lock and key — would seem a reasonable area of inquiry.
The Trump administration’s school safety effort is beginning to have the look and feel of a teenager seeking an easy way out of an unpleasant chore. That would be amusing if the subject weren’t so deadly serious. There have already been in the neighborhood of two dozen school shootings in the United States in 2018 including the March 20 attack at Great Mills High School in Lexington Park. Other countries don’t have this problem. (Hint: It isn’t because they have much better counseling). Countries like Germany, Finland, Scotland and Australia have successfully responded to school shootings by instituting sweeping reforms to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them. Until the DeVos commission looks at that lesson, its efforts will never achieve a passing grade in the U.S.
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