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US Commission on School Safety will study video games and social media, not firearms ‘per se’

Bizarre exchange on Capitol Hill serves as a potential preview of the Commission’s study

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In a bizarre exchange earlier this week on Capitol Hill, the chair of President Donald Trump’s Federal Commission on School Safety backed away from its stated objective to study the role firearms play in school violence. At the same time, the chair detailed its intent to spend time studying the effects of video games and social media.

The exchange came during a Senate appropriations subcommittee meeting where education secretary Betsy DeVos, who chairs the Commission, was invited to speak about the proposed budget for the Department of Education. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, began with a simple question: “Will your commission look at the role of firearms as it relates to gun violence in our schools?”

“That is not part of the commission’s charge per se,” DeVos said.

The Department of Education’s own website states otherwise.

It includes a page devoted to the Commission on School Safety, whose members include U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions, secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. The Committee’s charge to study the minimum age for firearm purchases is clearly mentioned in the first paragraph, below a quote by President Trump.

A screenshot from the U.S. Department of Education’s website dedicated to the Federal Commission on School Safety.
U.S. Department of Education

Indeed, the Commission itself was formed in the wake of a tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida where a 19-year-old gunman used an AR-15 style rifle to kill 17 students and faculty. The incident prompted Florida legislators to raise the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21.

Senator Leahy seemed incredulous.

“So you’re studying gun violence,” Leahy said, “but not considering the role of guns?”

“We’re actually considering school safety,” DeVos countered, “and how we can ensure our students are safe at school.”

In the wake of the Parkland shooting, the Trump administration quickly came out against violent media as the potential cause of violence in America’s schools. This is despite any clear evidence that video games and other forms of modern media contribute in any way to school shootings. In fact, many developed countries around the world have similar rates of consumption of popular media and yet fail to have school shootings of any kind.

Leahy pressed the Secretary on how, precisely, it would study the impact of video games and social media, two other action items mentioned alongside firearms on its website.

“Are you looking at some of those countries where the students do just as much time on video games,” Leahy asked, “just as much time on social media as we do but do not have gun violence? Are you looking at those at all? That’s a yes or no question.”

“Not per se,” DeVos said.

The Commission on School Safety is expected to complete its work and present a study by the end of the year.

The proposed budget for the Department of Education requests a total of $43 million for School Safety National Activities, compared to $68 million in 2017 and $67.5 million in 2018.

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