Issues to Watch

Guns in the Classroom? The Department of Education’s Possible Plan to Arm Teachers


*Sarah Livingston

The Parkland school shooting in February 2018 caused yet another debate in the media about the Second Amendment and school safety.  Vann R. Newkirk II, Arming Educators Violates the Spirit of the Second Amendment, The Atlantic (Feb. 22, 2018), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/02/the-absurdity-of-armed-educators/553961/.  Some states have proposed bills to permit concealed handguns in school, while others have enacted programs providing training to teachers on how to use firearms.  Id.  On August 22, 2018, the New York Times reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is considering a plan to use federal funding to arm teachers.  Erica L. Green, Education Secretary Considers Using Federal Funds to Arm Schools, N.Y. Times (Aug. 22, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/us/politics/betsy-devos-guns.html.  This would be the first instance of a federal agency approving the purchase of weapons without a congressional mandate.  Id.

In March 2018, the House of Representatives passed the Students, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act of 2018 that “would authorize $50 million annually in grants to strengthen school security, pay for ‘school threat assessment’ teams to train students and staff to report threats and other measures over 10 years.”  Phil Helsel, House Passes School Safety Bill a Month After Parkland Shooting, NBC News (Mar. 15, 2018, 1:05 AM), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/u-s-house-passes-school-safety-bill-month-after-parkland-n856726.  The bill expressly prohibits the use of the money for firearms, see Green, supra, despite President Trump’s support for such a provision, see @realDonaldTrump, Twitter (Mar. 12, 2018, 6:15 AM), https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/973185831547670529 (“Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to State Law.”).  However, there is another federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which does not include a weapons prohibition.  Green, supra.  ESSA was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015, to replace the previous No Child Left Behind Act.  Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), U.S. Dep’t of Educ., https://www.ed.gov/essa (last visited Sep. 14, 2018); Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Pub. L. No. 114-95, 129 Stat. 1802 (2015).  The law includes a $1 billion dollar student support grant program which is “intended for academic and enrichment opportunities in the country’s poorest schools and calls for school districts to use the money toward three goals: providing a well-rounded education, improving school conditions for learning and improving the use of technology for digital literacy.”  Green, supra.  The Department of Education has determined that “improving school conditions” could include the purchase of weapons for teachers.  Id.  Currently, that portion of the grant program has guidelines to encourage schools to “increase access to mental health counseling, establish dropout prevention programs, reduce suspensions and expulsions and improve re-entry programs for students transitioning from the juvenile justice system.”  Id.

Teachers and education organizations are generally opposed to the proposal.  Alana Abramson, Teachers Are Overwhelmingly Opposed to Carrying Guns in Schools, Says Survey, Time (Mar. 16, 2018), http://time.com/5203935/arming-teachers-gun-control-poll/.   In a Gallup survey, conducted in March 2018 with 497 teachers, 63% percent strongly opposed the idea of arming teachers.  Id.  Only 18% of teachers said they would participate in training if their school district provided it.  Id.  A former National Teacher of the Year award winner stated that the idea was “bar none, the worst theory of action I’ve ever heard.”  Benjamin Wermund, Why Arming Teachers is Highly Unlikely, Politico (Feb. 21, 2018, 7:16 PM), https://www.politico.com/story/2018/02/21/trump-armed-teachers-guns-359007.  The president of the American Federation of Teachers stated, “[a]nyone who suggests this has no real understanding of what goes on in schools, or worse doesn’t care, and is more focused on the needs of gun manufacturers and the NRA than of children.”  Id.

Using federal funding to purchase weapons for teachers would “break from decades-old practice in how funding is doled out for the purposes of school security.”  Green, supra.  The Department of Homeland Security has issued guidance for grants that are given out for “school preparedness” and noted that the grants are not to be used for weapons and ammunitions.  Id.  However, the Department of Education has emphasized that school shootings were not considered when Congress passed ESSA in 2015.  Id.

After the New York Times published its article on the proposal, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education told CNN “the department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety.  The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios.”  Sara Ganim et al., Trump Admin Disputes NYT Report on Education Department Plan to Arm Teachers, CNN (Aug. 23, 2018, 7:34 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/23/politics/nyt-betsy-devos-funding-plan-arm-teachers/index.html.  A senior administration official also told CNN that the proposal originated with the Texas Education Agency, which sought guidance on the issue from the Department of Education.  Id.  Nonetheless, this official stated that Secretary DeVos “thinks Congress should take action to clarify whether or not using the grant funding to buy guns is permissible.”  Id.

On August 23, 2018, Senator Chris Murphy introduced an amendment to prevent the Department of Education from allowing school districts to use federal funding to purchase weapons for its teachers.  Kathleen Megan, Sen. Chris Murphy Takes Step to Block Use of Federal Funds to Arm Teachers, Hartford Courant (Aug. 23, 2018, 11:00 AM), http://www.courant.com/politics/capitol-watch/hc-murphy-block-federal-funds-arming-teachers-20180823-story.html.  A vote on the amendment was not allowed, but Senator Murphy has promised that he will continue to fight for a ban on the proposal.  Id.  It will be interesting to see if Congress will take any action, or if states will proceed to use the grants to purchase guns for their teachers without awaiting further clarification from the federal government.

*Sarah Livingston is a second-year student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she is a staff editor for Law Review. She is also a Law Scholar for Professor Mazo’s ILS/Torts course, the Secretary for the Business and Tax Law Association, the Vice President of Events for the Wine Appreciation Society, and a member of the Women’s Bar Association. Next summer, Sarah will be working at Hogan Lovells in Baltimore as a summer associate.

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