PARKLAND, Florida—Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and members of the press were frustrated Wednesday morning after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos allegedly dodged questions from students and abruptly ended a press conference after receiving hardball questions from The Daily Beast and other media outlets.
DeVos announced she would travel to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Tuesday, a visit that was billed as an opportunity to “connect with students and teachers in the wake of the tragic shooting” on Valentine’s Day that left 14 students and three teachers dead after being gunned down by a disgruntled ex-student.
Journalists were barred from covering DeVos’ tour of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School as students and faculty returned to their first full day of school. The Department of Education said in a press release that the tour was “closed to press out of respect for the students and faculty.”
The secretary has long been dogged by congressional representatives and critics for her anti-public education stances and advocacy for charter schools, along with her lack of experience as an educator or education leader. Beyond that, she has also faced scrutiny for being the sister of Erik Prince, the former U.S. Navy SEAL officer and founder of the controversial defense-contracting company Blackwater USA.
DeVos received a barrage of scrutiny and criticism during her Senate confirmation hearings in January 2017 after suggesting guns might be appropriate in remote schools to defend against attacks from grizzly bears.
During the press conference with reporters at the nearby Fort Lauderdale Marriott in Coral Springs, Florida, DeVos said, “I just had a very sobering and very inspiring visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”
DeVos said she met with many students, teachers, and community leaders. DeVos said she implored the school’s administration to continue to “find solutions so that no student, no parent ever has to go through what this community has had to endure.”
“I heard a variety of things from the students. Some of them are doing quite well, but they all acknowledge its a day-to-day situation,” DeVos said.
“For students who were actually in the building and involved, it’s very tough. I did note, however, that there are a number of helper dogs around the school. And I spoke with a small group of students who are having a particular tough time and when I asked them if any of them had the opportunity to connect with the dogs, all of their faces lit up in an amazing way.”
Students took to social media during her visit to express their irritation with DeVos, alleging she barely answered questions and was only visiting for publicity.
“Betsy Devos came to my school, talked to three people, and pet a dog. This is incase the press tries to say something else later,” one student wrote on Twitter.
In a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student group text chat posted to Twitter, a student said, “Currently with Secretary of education aka besty Devos, and she barely answered my question.”
DeVos told reporters that no students asked her about the current National debate over whether or not school districts should start arming teachers.
The secretary deflected from concerns about President Trump’s plan to arm some teachers to protect students from potential shooters, saying, “We didn’t have a conversation about that. I was just there to be there, to be with them.”
“Let's be clear. I think to say ‘arming teachers’ is an oversimplification and a mischaracterization, really,” DeVos then told reporters. “The concept is for those schools and those communities that opt to do this... is to have people who are expert in being able to defend, and having lots and lots of training in order to do so.”
“Polk County [southwest of Orlando] is a great example here,” she added.
“They are required and requested to do training that is above and beyond what the deputies in that county are actually trained to,” DeVos said. “So the standards are actually very, very high, and I think that’s a model that can be adopted and should be an option for schools, for states, for communities. But it’s certainly not one that needs to be required or mandated for every community.”
The “Sentinel Program” in Polk County was launched two years ago by Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, offering 132 hours of training to allow teachers or other school personnel to legally carry a concealed firearm.
Florida law prevents individuals from carrying firearms on school property unless you are a member of law enforcement. Agencies have side-stepped this law by “deputizing” the teacher or faculty member known as “Sentinels.”
Sentinels must pass a criminal background check and submit to a psychological exam.
According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, basic law-enforcement recruits must have 80 hours of firearms training and 80 hours of defensive tactics, such as hand-to-hand combat. Every two years, officers must requalify with their firearms, completing a 40-round course of fire. The minimum requirements for Florida officers is 770 hours.
By comparison, Sentinels receive the same 80 hour firearms course as basic police recruits, but only four hours of hand-to-hand combat training. In total, Sentinels receive 132 training hours and must undergo retesting four times a year, according to local Fox 13 News.
The Daily Beast was one of only a few news outlets that was able to ask a question of DeVos before her abrupt departure. One reporter, frustrated with DeVos’ masterful display of political dodging, said to the secretary as she left: “Five questions—that’s it? Thank you, secretary. That’s it?”
Asked if she believes the training requirements mandate—contained in a Florida State Senate bill that narrowly passed on Monday—is adequate to train and arm teachers and faculty, DeVos said, “I think that’s something the Florida legislature is wrestling with right now and I think the requirements need to be very, very high and they need to be ones that… whatever community embraces this feels comfortable with.”
When pressed about the minimum training requirements under the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act,” renamed by the Florida Senate as the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program,” DeVos told The Daily Beast: “I have confidence that the Florida legislature is airing this issue very well and very widely and I have confidence they will arrive at a good and appropriate solution.”
Feis was one of the 17 victims in the mass shooting. Eyewitness reports from the day say Feis shielded students from gunfire. Others contend that if Feis—who was unarmed at the time—had a firearm, he would have been able to save more lives.
The current bill would prevent those who "exclusively perform classroom duties as classroom teachers" from being allowed to carry concealed firearms. The caveat does not apply to Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program teachers or current service members; and current or former law enforcement officers, according to the bill.
The bill would require teachers and faculty to complete 144 hours of training.
Critics of the legislation say it is being rushed in order to pass the bill before the Florida legislature ends its session on Friday.
On Tuesday, the Republican majority in the House defeated a Democrat-sponsored amendment to the bill, including, an attempt to remove the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.
Outside the chambers, student protesters staged a "die-in" holding signs that said “No armed teachers,” according to The Tampa Bay Times.
The Florida House is expected to hold a final vote on Wednesday.