In Gun Safety Push, White House Turns to Anxious School Principals for Help

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said that without safe schools for kids, “we can't expect them to be able to move the needle on reading or math.”

First lady Jill Biden spoke to principals Thursday at a White House event focused on promoting safe gun storage. As a community college educator, she thanked principals for being “willing to push a little harder and to do this one more thing.” (Getty Images)

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Updated January 25

The Biden administration is calling on the nation’s school principals to promote safe gun storage among parents and staff as part of its effort to prevent school shootings. 

Gathering with principals at the White House, including several who have experienced school shootings, first lady Jill Biden said the nation asks a lot of educators, but their leadership on this issue could save lives.

“How can we accept a world where the leading cause of death for our children is gun violence?” asked Biden, who visited Uvalde, Texas, in 2022 after 19 students and two teachers were killed at an elementary school. “I don’t want to have to put my hand on another cross with an 8-year-old’s name.”

The resources for schools, which were released ahead of the event, should make it easier for school leaders to talk to families about a sensitive topic, officials said. The materials include a gun storage guide, a message to principals from Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and a sample letter to parents with tips about trigger locks and storing ammunition.

“We often hear from principals that they want to do everything they can to keep their students and educators safe,” Stefanie Feldman, director of the White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, said during a call with reporters Wednesday. “But they shouldn’t have to be experts on safe storage of firearms.”

Research shows that most school shooters obtain their weapons from home or from friends or relatives. That was the case in the 2021 shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, where the gunman’s parents now face involuntary manslaughter charges for their role in allowing their son access to a weapon despite red flags. And 80% of gun suicides among children 18 and younger involved a weapon belonging to a family member, data shows.

President Joe Biden, who is backed in this year’s election by major gun control advocacy groups, has taken executive actions to reduce gun violence, such as increasing background checks and prohibiting the sale of “ghost guns.” But Republicans have largely resisted the president’s efforts to tighten gun restrictions.

Cardona said Thursday that gun safety shouldn’t be a “red or blue issue.” Schools, he added, have adopted other life-saving practices, like having Narcan on hand in case of an opioid overdose, and should “normalize” discussing gun safety. He told the attendees that other community members, like mayors and church elders, will listen to them because they are “credible leaders.”

One principal who was initially skeptical about the administration’s message had a change of heart after attending Thursday’s event.

”We’re instructional leaders,” Edward Cosentino, principal at Phelps Luck Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland, said Wednesday following the release of the new sample materials. “Everything seems to be thrown on the shoulders of principals and schools these days.”

But on Thursday, he said he viewed the call to action as “definitely not an add-on.” 

“It isn’t completely on us,” he said. “It’s part of a larger effort.”

Currently, 34 states have laws intended to prevent children from accessing guns, while eight states specifically require guns to be secured in a locked container or to have a locking device, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. 

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued model legislation to encourage  more states to pass such laws. But currently there is no federal requirement that gun owners keep their weapons locked up.

The Thursday event followed Cardona’s Monday visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He toured the building where Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students and school staff members and injured another 17 people nearly six years ago. The school, untouched since the shooting, is scheduled to be demolished this year. Cruz is serving a life sentence for the attack.

U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, left, speaks at a school safety roundtable Monday, Jan. 22, at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott in Coral Springs, Florida. Also pictured are U.S. Secretary Miguel Cardona (center) and Max Schachter, whose son, Alex, was killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre. (Scott Travis/Getty Images)

“I walked over shattered glass. I saw bullet holes through walls and through desks,” Cardona said. “In some cases that morning, I was standing next to the parent of the murdered child.”

The education department and the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which President Joe Biden established last year, organized the town hall in part with the Principal Recovery Network, a group of administrators who have experienced shootings at their schools. 

“Each of these tragedies leaves an immense amount of trauma,” said Michelle Kefford, principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

Cardona also led a moment of silence for Dan Marburger, the Iowa principal who was injured while protecting students during a school shooting on Jan. 4. He died 10 days later.  

“There is that heavy load on principals,”  said Tracy Hilliard, who also attended Thursday’s event. She serves as principal of Urbana Elementary in Frederick, Maryland and president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals.“We serve in many roles, but we knew that when we accepted the job.”

But some say the responsibility shouldn’t fall on school leaders who are already overtaxed. 

“I think it’s very unrealistic to expect that school administrators are going to take this on with enthusiasm,” said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a nonprofit that provides training to school leaders. “It’s easy for government and community organizations to say, ‘Let the schools do that.’ ”

Addressing that concern at the event, Cardona said that educators didn’t “sign up” for a pandemic either. 

“If we’re not prioritizing saving the lives of children in our schools,” he said, “and creating a stronger sense of safety for them, we can’t expect them to be able to move the needle on reading or math or all the other things that are so crucial to their education.”

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