Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was hand-picked by President Trump himself to head the newly created Federal School Safety Commission. But DeVos missed the school safety commission's first public session held Wednesday, a mere 24 hours after she announced to Congress that guns would not be a focus of the commission's research.
Among those present at the public session were student activists who voiced their disagreement with DeVos' seeming refusal to even consider gun control as it relates to recent school shootings. CNN reported that Alessia Modjarrad, a high school senior from Maryland, told the commission panel, "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."
Michael Yin, who graduated from Montgomery Blair High School on Tuesday, told the panel, "I believe this commission should look at guns." He said that such a move would demonstrate "great courage for this commission and this administration."
But since DeVos is in Europe for a 10-day trip beginning in Switzerland, she did not receive the students' remarks in person. There are four members on the commission in total. Notably, the commission's three other members — Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar III — were also absent.
DeVos is set to deliver the keynote address Thursday at the Third International Congress on Vocational and Professional Education and Training. According to the Department of Education, DeVos will also be traveling to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to learn more about their apprenticeship programs and decentralized K12 education system, respectively.
It struck some as questionable that DeVos would schedule the commission's first public hearing on a date that conflicted with her planned trip to Europe. Bob Farrace, a director with the National Association of Secondary School Principals, told Vice News, "It is odd, and perhaps a bit disrespectful, that the secretary would plan a public listening session on a day she knew she would be leaving the country." Farrace also said the absence of the commission's other three members suggested their work to ensure student safety was "not a priority for this administration."
Elizabeth Hill, the press secretary for the Department of Education, pushed back on that assessment. In an email statement to Vice News, Hill described the commission's work as an "absolute priority" for DeVos and the other members. Hill noted that DeVos had sent a deputy in her place to Wednesday's hearing, and said the education secretary emphasizes there is "no time for delay" in preparing their report for improving school safety.
DeVos raised eyebrows on Tuesday during her Senate testimony to the committee overseeing education spending. When asked by Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy if she and her team had plans to research guns specifically, DeVos answered, "That’s not part of the commission’s charge, per se."
Leahy responded, "So we’ll look at gun violence in schools, but not look at guns? An interesting concept." It struck some as especially "interesting," given the commission's own original list of president-approved research goals. Included in that set of issues to look into was "discussion on minimum age for firearms purchases." The commission was also charged with exploring "social emotional support," the effectiveness of current "school safety infrastructure," and what role video games and media play in impacting young people's relationship to violence.
When asked about teenagers' access to guns, DeVos did not offer a solid answer. Instead, she deferred to Congress and observed that lawmakers would "continue to debate" the issue. That seemed to imply the commission was not planning to focus their research on any aspect of gun control.
DeVos' absence from the commission's first public hearing signaled to many that she may not take any aspect of their research all that seriously.