Jill Biden urges gun safety, rejects education culture wars

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Three weeks after the deadly mass shooting in Uvalde, Tex., first lady Jill Biden called on parents and teachers to advocate for a bipartisan agreement on gun safety in Congress, as she also voiced frustration about “those who’ve tried to divide us in these last few years.”

“From reopening schools to class curriculum, we’ve been told that parents and teachers are at odds,” she told the National PTA, as leaders met for their 125th anniversary convention at the National Harbor in Maryland, just outside Washington. “But as I visit schools and I meet with families, that’s not what I’ve seen.”

She appeared to reject the idea schools – including what teachers are permitted to say and do – are the proper place to wage political debates. Instead, Biden said she has found teachers and counselors checking in on struggling parents, and families pushing for better pay for teachers. “There is no divide between those who love our students and those who teach them,” she said.

Biden was appealing to an enthusiastic audience of parents and teachers who considered her – a lifelong educator – one of their own. National PTA President Anna King had predicted she would “inspire people just by being there,” regardless of what she said.

She also argued passionately for gun reform measures in the wake of the Uvalde massacre, recounting the day she stood with President Biden before 21 crosses set up to honor the 19 children and two teachers who were killed May 24 at Robb Elementary School.

“I touched the pictures of the beautiful faces that would never again laugh or open birthday presents or tell their parents that they loved them,” she said. She said the scenario has become an all-too-common fear for teachers and families.

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“I’ve imagined that scene in my own classroom again and again,” she said. “At the start of each semester, I’m sure all of you in here who are teachers do this: You explain to your students on the first day a pathway to get out if a shooter comes into school so they are prepared.”

“I’ve wondered over the years if my students would be the next heartbreaking headline,” she said.

She called on the group – about 750 PTA leaders from across the country – to insist that lawmakers take action. Her 10-minute speech Friday morning was greeted with rousing applause.

Biden, who likes students to call her “Dr. B, ”has kept her post as a professor of English at Northern Virginia Community College even after her husband was elected president – the first first lady to hold a full-time job outside the White House. She taught at NOVA when Joe Biden was vice president, too, and counts this year as her 38th as a teacher.

PTA leaders had prioritized school safety and an array of other issues during their four-day conference and additional lobbying days. King said her organization is also focused on mental health support in schools, child nutrition programs and education funding.

“We’re really concerned about our youth’s mental health,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “And we want to make sure that there is funding.”

Like PTA leaders, Biden was concerned about the ongoing fallout of the pandemic – and the work ahead, during the next school year.

“Even as our schools are reopened, we know that recovery isn’t always the same as healing,” she said. “Our students are still wrestling with the aftershocks of this pandemic – isolation, anxiety and sorrow. I hear it so much: “Parents who are worried that their kids are having a hard time catching up after learning virtually. Educators who tell me that they’re feeling burned out. Students who are dealing with the trauma of loss and grief.”

Adding to that is a wave of resentment. Education has become a regular political flash point, amid heated debate about critical race theory, the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation, and restrictions on which books students can read at school.

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President Biden had pushed back on critics, signing an executive order this week that called out legislative attacks on LGBTQ children and families and directed government agencies to take steps to support them.

It includes a crackdown on “conversion therapy” – a discredited practice that seeks to change someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation – and charges the Department of Education with issuing a sample policy that helps LGBTQ students achieve full inclusion at schools. Other agencies are directed to bolster LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections in the foster-care system, and improve access to health care and counseling for LGBTQ families.

“We know that in places across the country – like Florida, Texas, or Alabama – rights are under attack,” Jill Biden said at the White House ceremony. “And we know that in small towns and big cities, prejudice and discrimination still lurk.

“It shouldn’t take courage to be yourself,” she went on. “It shouldn’t take courage to go to school and walk down the halls as the person you know you are.”

White House officials said more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced this year in state legislatures, many of them targeting transgender children and their parents.

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