U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shook hands with Dallas ISD trustee Bernadette Nutall before a conversation with student activists Thursday afternoon.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos shook hands with Dallas ISD trustee Bernadette Nutall before a conversation with student activists Thursday afternoon.
Stephen Young

Education Secretary Betsy Devos Tap Dances Around Dallas Teens' Calls for School Safety, Gun Control

Thursday afternoon's conversation, like a lot of things involving Betsy DeVos, teetered among the surreal, the confusing and the merely frustrating.

The secretary of education and private school choice advocate was in the midst of a hostile crowd but did her best to seem engaged without out actually engaging. DeVos nodded her head when the student activists participating in the forum, organized by the privately funded school safety group Urban Specialists, described facing potential gun violence in their classrooms. But she didn't concede anything tangible that she might be willing to do to help. It was theater of the type enjoyed by DeVos' boss. She heard the students, but it's doubtful she listened to them.

"We shouldn't have to wait for another tragedy for this conversation to start," Waed Alhayek, a University of Texas at Arlington senior who helped organize Dallas' March for Our Lives in March, told DeVos. "The time is now. I think it's important that we talk about commonsense gun reform. It's nothing crazy. We're asking for universal background checks, closing the loopholes for people buying at gun shows or buying from independent sellers, and things like a ban on bump stocks and high-capacity magazines."  

DeVos ignored Alhayek's premise.

"What other perspectives to you have for ensuring that kids are safe at school?" DeVos asked Alhayek and Dalen Houston, another student activist.

"It starts up here," Houston said, pointing to his head. "If you assure kids mentally by putting stricter laws in place that will ensure that we're safe, then we'll start to feel safe because we'd be aware that there are laws in place to make it harder for a shooting like this to happen."

"Do you have some ideas about how to prevent these things to begin with," Devos said.

"Like [Alhayek] said. Banning bump stocks, banning high-capacity magazines, background checks, mental health background checks," Houston said.

Later Matt Tranchin, an all-purpose Dallas organizer and activist trying to help turn March for Our Lives from a one-off event into a movement, asked DeVos whether she supports universal background checks for Americans hoping to purchase firearms.

"As the school safety commission [that DeVos has been appointed to head] conducts its work, it's an area that we have to dive in more deeply," DeVos said. "I'm pleased that the Fix NICS legislation [which closed some loopholes in the federal background check process] was part of the recent omnibus [budget bill], and that's made some steps in the right direction, but I know that questions remain."

The secretary wasn't finished with her nonanswer. Take a deep breath before you toss yourself into the rest of her word salad:

"I know that it is a good and very important question that will be part of the work that we do, but the work that we've been charged with is a lot broader than the questions around the areas that tend to get most polarized most quickly and is really a charge to look more at a continuum of, 'What is fostering and facilitating this kind of attitude that violence is the only course of action?' And so those are very important questions that I think we have to collectively take a look at, and there are a lot of states and a lot of local communities that they have addressed some of these things in important ways but haven't been shared more broadly. ... We know that's there's not a one-size-fits-all solution because everybody in every geography is different, but it is going to be valuable for us to know what things have been implemented in a variety of places in a variety of ways and help ensure that the resources are there to implement them effectively depending on the needs of that community." 

Altogether, that's more than 250 words — part of her answer was difficult to hear on our recording. Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, incidentally, was 272 words.

Bernadette Nutall, the Dallas ISD trustee for District 9, said at the meeting that it's important for city of Dallas and school district leaders to engage DeVos whether they agree with her politics or ideas about public education.

"That's my job as a trustee. I'm going to advocate for our students, and I'm going to take every opportunity to showcase the good that is going on in Dallas ISD because there are wonderful things going on in Dallas ISD, Nutall said. "I may not support [DeVos], but she is our secretary of education, and we must have a dialogue."

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