If you’re shopping for portents of what Betsy DeVos’ tenure in government will entail, you won’t do much better than this: On Friday morning, the U.S. secretary of education tried to enter a D.C. public middle school through the back door. She was blocked and somehow got in anyway, and whether that, too, is an augur of the DeVos era will be a matter of significant concern, and not just to the two dozen protesters who showed up at Jefferson Middle School Academy.
DeVos, an aggressive proponent of charter schools, was visiting the school for a meeting with the D.C. schools chancellor. In a video clip circulated by ABC 7 News WJLA-TV, protesters blocked DeVos’ way as she attempted to use the back entrance. She then returned to her car while a man shouted “shame” at her.
An image on Twitter showed her inside the school later on, though it’s unclear when she got in, or how.
Protesters also clashed briefly with police at the front entrance to the school when they formed a line to block a car they believed contained DeVos. The police broke up the line, carrying away one person who’d clung to the grille of the car.
The demonstrators had gathered at about 9 a.m., an hour before DeVos was scheduled to arrive, to post signs on their cars and wave posters in support of the public school system. At the front of the school, they chanted: “What do you want? To save our public schools! Why? To make America great!” and “When our schools are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
Elizabeth Davis, the president of the Washington Teacher’s Union, said that the demonstration was not actually a protest of DeVos but a “vigil” in support of teachers and the public school system. “We wanted to be out here to support them, to send a message to DeVos that we support a public school system of right, that we are not going to tolerate the closing of our public schools,” she said. “And we do not want any of our schools to become experiments of privatization schemes.”
Those are nice-sounding words with a faint nonpartisan ring to them, but there was no mistaking that this was a protest directed at DeVos. One demonstrator had a sign that read, “Does not play well with others, should be held back” and another implied DeVos was more of a threat to schools than bears are, a reference to her comments during her confirmation hearing in which she said guns might be needed in schools to deal with “potential grizzlies.”
The assembled group comprised primarily teachers and parents, along with some activists who’d heard about the demonstration through social media or word of mouth.
One D.C. charter school teacher, who held a sign that said, “Ms. DeVos, our children are not props,” had used her break at school to come here to protest. The teacher, who declined to give her name, said she came because she thinks DeVos’ emphasis on school choice could exacerbate segregation in our educational system. But she and other protesters also objected to the event itself: Jefferson Middle School Academy is 95 percent black. “I have a feeling she’s showing up here to take photos with brown and black students and leave,” the teacher said. “Students are here to learn and aren’t props.”
“I’m glad to see she’s finally in a public school,” Davis said, “because she’s never set foot in one, according to what I’ve heard.”
One of the protesters, Jjana Valentiner, is an activist who had heard about the demonstration from her friend. It had been a good morning for the resistance, she felt: “The fact that she had to do some James Bond moves means we’re doing our job.”