According to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the best way to handle mass murders at schools is to make it easier to expel and suspend black kids, since all of the shooters have been white.
It’s a racist recommendation that makes absolutely no sense, but it’s what you expect from a conservative billionaire who made her money by marrying well and who never attended any public school.
But. then, extremist politics are a family tradition. Her in-laws are a right-wing dynasty who founded Amway, making a fortune off of a perfectly legal pyramid scheme that turned middle-American housewives into a sales force who spent billions of their own money buying everything from furniture polish to vitamins from Amway, then reselling it at a mark-up.
Betsy DeVos didn’t just marry into the fringe of conservative politics, though. Her maiden name is Betsy Prince, and the Prince family has made its own notorious imprint on American history, mainly because of her brother Erik. Erik Prince is an ex-Navy SEAL (just like Eric Greitens). In 1997, he took advantage of the U.S. military outsourcing many operations and founded Blackwater, a group of ex-military mercenaries-for-hire (he prefers to call them “security contractors”) best known for the slaughter of 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians in 2007.
Called “the world’s most powerful private mercenary army,” Blackwater changed its name twice to try to wash away the stench and then was sold in 2011to a private equity firm, which now direct the hired killers as the Academi Company. Former Blackwater soldiers filed sworn statements in Virginia federal court in August 2009 alleging that Erik Prince considered himself a “Christian crusader” who wanted to “eliminate Muslims and Islam.” They also claimed that Prince ordered the murders of several people who were going to bring charges of human rights abuses against Blackwater. Prince settled the lawsuit and sold Blackwater the next year.
While Betsy DeVos doesn’t share her brother’s predilection for war crimes, she does share his fervid, fundamentalist brand of white Christianity. In 2001, Politico reports, DeVos and her husband, Amway CEO Dick DeVos, spoke at a Christian philanthropy conference, where the now-Education secretary said, “Our desire is to confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”
This is not a God’s Kingdom of charity and the Sermon on the Mount, but one of harsh consequences and Leviticus. Never a fan of public schools and never having attended one, DeVos has helped direct her husband’s money from the DeVos Family Foundation to an assortment of Christian schools, the kind where the ascent of angels is presented as fact while evolution is not.
DeVos, not surprisingly, is also a fan of directing tax dollars to largely unregulated charter schools, including schools with an overt religious agenda. When she was nominated to be Education secretary, 2,700 of her fellow alumni from Calvin College (a Calvinist school in Grand Rapids, Michigan) signed a letter saying DeVos was unfit for the top federal education job because she is not a supporter of public education and had zero experience in public education.
Her entire right-wing worldview is on display in the gibberish that passes itself off as the Trump administration’s report on school safety. The panel that wrote the report, chaired by DeVos, was created after the mass slaughter at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in February.
It ignores any mention of gun control and instead suggests that teachers arm themselves and that maybe the federal government will help pay for their firearms training. That sort of nonsense is par for the course when conservative extremists – that is to say, Trump supporters – are given the power to suggest policy.
But the biggest head-shaker is DeVos’ demand that the 2014 Education Department guidelines for reducing the disparity in suspensions and expulsions between white students and minority students be tossed out.
That stunned St. Louis lawyer Luz Marie Henriquez, who heads the Education Justice Program for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri. “I was surprised,” said Henriquez, who works with school districts across Missouri. “Mass shootings are not committed by children of color. This is going to adversely impact the children we work with.”
The DeVos commission claims that it included the recommendation in the report because the 2014 Obama guidelines made Stoneman Douglas High School officials reluctant to act to expel or suspend mass shooter Nikolas Cruz, despite almost no evidence that was the case.
Instead, it seems clear these guidelines are being jettisoned for the same reason the report says the solution to school shootings is more guns: it’s what Trump’s white nationalist base wants. Any Obama program aimed at minority kids, no matter how successful, is doomed.
The Obama guidelines, even though they aren’t mandatory, have already shown results in trying to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline for minority students. Saint Louis Public Schools, for example, had been among the nation’s top 10 districts when it came to suspending or expelling minority children. Now, the city schools no longer suspend students if they’re between kindergarten and second grade. In the ‘burbs, the Kirkwood Schools have announced an end to all out-of-school suspensions, instead keeping suspended students in special classes.
“School is where poor students have access to food and to mentoring,” said Henriquez. “If kids are out of school, especially younger kids, that leads to disengagement. Ninety-five percent of suspensions are for non-violent offenses, like not having a complete school uniform. After the 2014 guidelines, a lot of schools changed policies.”
A 2015 ACLU study concluded black students are five times as likely to be disciplined as white students. The DeVos guidelines say that’s just fine, all in the name of keeping schools safe from mass shootings.
But since mass school shooters are almost exclusively white, the new policy makes no sense to anyone. Except white nationalists.
Charles Jaco is a journalist, author, and activist. Follow him on Twitter at @charlesjaco1.