Oceanside, Island Park school officials react to NYSED memo prohibiting education dollars for guns


Apparently reacting to media reports in August that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos might allow schools to use federal education dollars to train and arm teachers, New York’s education commissioner issued a memorandum on Sept. 13 banning public schools from doing just that. In Ocean-side and Island Park, school officials voiced their support for the move.

In the memo, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia affirmed the rights of all New York students “to attend school in a safe and secure environment that is free of weapons.”

The memo said that local educational agencies could not use federal or state funds to purchase or train school staff in the use of firearms, no matter the case. “There is no place in our schools for weapons, no matter the intentions,” Elia said.

Island Park Schools Superintendent Dr. Rosmarie Bovino expressed support for the memo, affirming Elia’s authority to determine how federal funds should be distributed.

“Island Park submitted its application for its Title IV allocation of $10,000 mid-summer,” Bovino said, referring to the federal grant funds earmarked under the Every Student Succeeds Act for use in bolstering education and mental health programming, funds that the Department of Education had considered allowing schools to use for the purchase of guns. “. . . Emphasis will be placed on programs that continue building relationships of trust and mutual respect. This is the best way to ensure that schools are safe places for students, teachers and visitors to our school community.”

DeVos’s staff pushed back on the initial report in late-August, insisting that the department was responding to an inquiry from education officials in Texas, and that no decision had been made.

Still, according to CNN, the Department of Education left the matter open. Spokeswoman Liz Hill told reporters that the department “is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety.”

Oceanside School Board President Sandie Schoell said the suggestion that the Title IV funds could be used to purchase guns and training for teachers to use them was “frightening,” and was critical of DeVos’s leadership abilities in the field of education.

“She’s the one who started this turmoil with this suggestion,” she said. “None of us has much faith in her in the field of education. Her background does not lend itself to it.”

Schoell said she was appalled by the suggestion that teachers, who have dedicated their lives to educating children, would be pressed to arm themselves. “These poor people, our educators, are trained to educate children, they’re not educated or trained to start shooting,” Schoell said. She noted that in most cases school shooters tend to be students themselves, adding, “You’re asking these people to arm themselves to shoot children.”

Schoell said a better use of state and federal funds and policy would be to expand mental health programming to help students identify when they are struggling emotionally, to have assistance available when they are and to establish better lines of communication between schools, police and mental health professionals.

“I don’t think guns are going to cure this problem,” she said. “I think it’s more important that we use the money or any monies we have to get to the root, and the root, of course, is mental health.”

Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, responded to the report by saying that her administration opposes the use of federal funds to arm teachers. “Every penny of federal grants should go towards our children’s educational enrichment,” Curran said, “not towards bringing firearms into their classrooms.”

Elia said that even if federal guidelines allowed states to use education money for arming teachers and related expenses, states generally have the ability to be more restrictive when it comes to their schools. Guns in the hands of teachers and other staff would also run contrary to the state’s Every Student Succeeds Act guidelines, Elia said. “We simply cannot afford to use federal education dollars that are intended for teaching and learning to pay for weapons that will compromise our schools and communities,” Elia added.

Both Bovino and Schoell said that in regards to security, both of their districts have excellent lines of communication with the Nassau County Police Department, which has trained law enforcement professionals who should be the only armed personnel entering school buildings.

“Our most immediate and best security measure derives from the close working relationships that we have with the officers of the Nassau County Police Department, and the Morrelly Homeland Security Center,” Bovino said. “… In addition, school-based personnel in the district have the ability to contact the Nassau County police directly at any time through the RAVE 911 emergency response cell phone app. We believe our officers have the best equipment, training, and judgment required to keep us safe.”

Schoell also noted her district’s use of the RAVE app, as well as the ability for county police to tap into school buildings’ security camera feeds — a feature added this school year — “We’re always looking for ways to enhance security,” she said.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, who wrote Elia in August expressing concern about the possible federal changes, agreed with the NYSED memo.

“Sadly, the administration in Washington believes that more guns is the answer,” Kaminsky said. “The educators that I regularly speak with instead believe that guns in classrooms make everyone less safe, and that precious federal funds should be spent on increasing access to educational resources.”

DeVos had said, in an Aug. 31 letter to Rep. Bobby Scott, of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, that she intended to leave the matter up to the states.

“Let me be clear: I have no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff,” she said. “Congress did not authorize me or the department to make those decisions.”