WASHINGTON (CN) – A newly announced federal commission on school safety will meet in the “next few weeks,” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, just hours after a school shooting in suburban Maryland.
“Rest assured, we have a very keen sense of urgency,” DeVos told members of the House Appropriations Committee.
Earlier, a teenager with a handgun shot a girl inside Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, about 70-miles from the Capitol Hill hearing room in which DeVos testified.
The shooter was fatally wounded during a confrontation with a school resource officer, St. Mary’s County Sheriff Tim Cameron said.
A second student, identified as a 14-year-old boy also suffered a gunshot wound, although it wasn’t immediately clear who shot him.
The events of the day heightened tensions at the hearing, which was already expected to be unpleasant for DeVos given the strong feelings she elicits from some members of Congress and her recent, widely panned appearance on the “60 Minutes” television program.
The school safety commission will be made up of Attorney General Jeff Sessions Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and DeVos, who said they will consult a “wide variety of experts.”
But the secretary quickly got into hot water with the panel when she said she looked forward to meeting with students who survived the Parkland shooting last month “at a time that is workable.”
Many of those students will be in Washington, D.C. on Friday for the March for Our Lives, but DeVos said she wasn’t sure she had time in her schedule on Friday to see them.
“You’re not sure that you have the time to meet with the Parkland kids on Friday, and maybe you will have a meeting with the commission in a few weeks, but then, maybe not,” an incredulous Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said. “You know, Madam Secretary, I think we understand where your priorities are. They are not with the, the young people of this country.”
Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., unsuccessfully pressed DeVos for a timeline for the school safety commission’s first meeting, and asked whether any Democrats, or experts on gun violence, would be core members of the body.
“No experts, no democrats? No student [advisers]?” Clark asked.
“We will have forums and meetings with a wide variety of experts across the country … we want to make sure we can move and operate as quickly as possible,” DeVos said.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., asked the secretary her stance on raising the legal age for gun ownership from 18 to 21.
“There’s a number of ways to address this,” she said. “The president has been clear and has focused on ways to prevent young people from getting guns.”
President Donald Trump has waffled on the issue. In the immediate aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, the president said he supported raising the age limit. However, after meeting privately with leaders of the National Rifle Association, he took to Twitter to lament the lack of political support for such a plan.
Instead he said, “states [were] making this decision” and that he was “watching court cases and rulings before acting.”
A by-now shaken DeVos was also slammed for her apparent openness to arming teachers, especially in light of data revealing that minority students are punished more harshly for the same infractions compared to white students.
“Should the president’s view prevail in arming, uh, teachers, do you see why black and brown students are really worried and anxious about this? It’s very clear to me,” Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said. “Madam Secretary, you just don’t care much about rights of black and brown children. This is horrible.”
Lawmakers also took issue with the Trump administration’s plan to cut $3.6 billion from a wide range of educational program while providing $1 billion in additional funding for school choice programs.
Rep. Lee noted $1 million is slated to be slashed from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.
“The data from that office says black and brown students are three times more likely to be expelled than their white peers,” she said. “Recently you said you didn’t know whether or not race plays a role in school discipline. Isn’t it your job to be sure schools aren’t executing harsher punishments for [minority students that exhibit] the same behavior as their white peers?” Lee asked.
DeVos responded by saying she believes the administration’s proposed budget “not only protects but encourages students of color to pursue education thru level Title I funding, expands grant opportunities for parents who will be able to choose different schools.”
“Schools are no place for discrimination and no tolerance for discrimination. I’m very proud of the Office of Civil Rights,” DeVos said.
“But you’re taking away a $1 million?” Lee retorted before telling the secretary her “head was in the sand about racial bias.”
DeVos was also rebuked by lawmakers after being asked whether she would intervene in distributing critical information for parents of special needs students.
According to a November 2016 Government Accountability Office report, parents who use private school vouchers are often unaware of the federal protections they surrender once their child leaves the public school system.
When asked if she would commit to following the statues under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, DeVos said that states are responsible for sharing that information, not the federal government.