‘I don’t want to be scared’: School safety panel critics want a focus on guns

Representatives of the federal school safety commission formed by President Donald Trump after the deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, faced criticism Wednesday for not focusing on the role that guns play in school violence.

At the commission’s first full-day public listening session, held at the Department of Education, several participants — including some students — criticized the agency for not turning its attention to guns after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday that it was not within the commission’s scope.

Alessia Modjarrad, a graduating Montgomery County, Maryland, high school senior and student activist, told the commission that efforts to address school safety by the Trump administration are “misguided and inefficient.”

“We, the students, experience the American school system every day. We used to sit in classrooms waiting for something to be done,” she said, adding that they will now use their voices instead. “I don’t want to be scared. I don’t want to think that, at any moment, someone with a gun could walk in and hurt us all.”

At the public forum, the commission sought feedback on solutions to improve safety in the nation’s schools. The event, which is the first of several planned, came one day after DeVos told a Senate subcommittee hearing that the federal commission would not focus on the role that guns played in school violence, comments that appeared to confound lawmakers.

On Tuesday, DeVos told Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who questioned her on the commission’s goal, that focusing on the role of guns was “not part of the commission’s charge, per se.”

Modjarrad called on DeVos and the commission to reconsider its “current complicit stance on the role of guns in school safety” and argued that it should be its most important focus.

“I would ask to please consider the possibilities that guns are the most important aspect of the purview of this commission,” she said.

DeVos, who is traveling to Switzerland, did not attend the forum, but Deputy Education Secretary Mick Zais, who represented the Education Department at the event, said Wednesday that the commission would look at “narrow aspects of gun ownership.”

“What we will be doing is looking at specific age limits for the purchase of specific kinds of weapons and we will be examining legal procedures for the confiscation of weapons from people with identified mental health issues, so we will be looking at those narrow aspects of gun ownership,” he said, in response to remarks from Michael Yin, who graduated from a Maryland high school one day ago.

“I believe this commission should look at guns,” said Yin, who graduated from Montgomery Blair High School. “Rather than being a sign of cowardice it would show great courage for this commission and this administration.”

Wednesday’s forum was the first opportunity for members of the public to provide input to the committee directly. The commission has held several closed-door meetings with select stakeholders, including survivors of school shootings. Last week, the commission held its first field hearing at a Maryland elementary school, which focused on positive behavioral intervention and supports.

DeVos, who chairs the commission, has said the goal is to spotlight successful techniques in use at schools and in communities across the country that can help make schools safer. The commission is expected to make its recommendations by year’s end, DeVos has said.

The commission heard from a wide swath of experts and advocates within the education community on Wednesday, as well as educators, parents and students. A number of speakers called for increasing students’ access to mental health professionals, like school psychologists and counselors.

A number of speakers said they did not support proposals to train and arm educators, something that Trump called for in the wake of the Florida shooting.

Zachary Scott, from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, called on the commission to abandon the idea.

“Such proposals stem from a desperate and well-intentioned effort to do something — anything — to make parents and community members believe schools are safer, but the effect would be the opposite,” Scott said.

Abbey Clements, who survived the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 20 children and six adults, said the shooting could have been worse had teachers been armed.

She said it was “completely unrealistic to think that an educator with a gun would have been able to navigate this in such a short time and take down a gunman” while caring for the students in their charge.

“Say I had a gun. Would I have left my terrified children? Never,” Clements said.