A coalition of advocacy and teacher groups sued the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday morning for information related to its decision to allow schools to purchase firearms using federal funds.
The American Federation of Teachers, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence say the Education Department is violating federal law by not releasing records related to the decision in a timely manner.
In August and September, the groups filed two Freedom of Information Act requests for more information on the decision. The requests, filed on behalf of the groups by Democracy Forward, were designed to glean information on issues such as whether the Education Department was influenced by the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups. A request also sought information on which school districts were interested in arming teachers using federal funds.
The government is required to determine whether to comply with a FOIA request within 20 days. But according to the lawsuit, also filed by Democracy Forward, the government has fallen short of its statutory obligation. The plaintiffs are requesting expedited processing of their information request, which the government previously denied.
“The information sought by Plaintiffs’ FOIA requests, which will shed light on whether lobbyists associated with the firearms industry or gun-lobby groups including the National Rifle Association were involved in the Department’s decision and reveal communications between the Department and states or local school districts and within the Department concerning the use of these funds to arm teachers, is plainly of great public importance,” says the lawsuit.
Controversy over the issue started in August, when The New York Times first reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was weighing whether to allow states and districts to use federal grant money under the Every Student Succeeds Act to arm school staffers, after representatives from Texas asked if it was permissible. The grant money is intended to provide academic support and improve conditions for student learning. But in late August, DeVos said she would not restrict how these grant funds are spent, writing that she had “no intention of taking any action concerning the purchase of firearms or firearms training for school staff.” The law, as she interpreted it, gives schools substantial flexibility in this area.
Critics said her move undermines the intent of the act, since Congress has expressly prohibited schools from using federal funds on firearms in separate laws. The groups filing the FOIA lawsuit also say that using federal funds in this manner is unlawful.
“She wants to turn the U.S. government into an arms dealer for schools. That’s insane,” said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in August about DeVos.
Weingarten, in a press release Wednesday, also said she has heard from gun-owning teachers around the country who are concerned about the safety effects of bringing more guns into a school setting.
“It’s time Betsy DeVos starts standing up for kids and teachers, not the NRA,” said Weingarten.