Dozens Turn their Back to Betsy DeVos During Graduation Speech

The controversial education secretary was targeted for loosening protections for LGBTQ students and campus sexual assault survivors, and for championing the privatization of public schools

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR: Protests at the University of Baltimore today as controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave the fall commencement address to the graduating class that was conflicted about her presence. Dozens of students and supporters in the audience turned their backs on the billionaire heiress and raised their fists in defiance.

BETSY DEVOS: When you permanently turn your back on a commitment, your effort plummets to zero as a consequence, she wrote.

KERRIN SMITH: To invite somebody this incendiary to an event that’s supposed to be celebratory is really, I think very disrespectful to them and all the work that they’ve put through. A lot of them are grappling with whether or not they want to have a happy celebratory graduation day or if they want or how they’re going to make their ideas known during the ceremony. That’s just not a choice they should have to make.

JAISAL NOOR: DeVos was a polarizing pick for the nation’s top education post, her open hostility towards public education, lack of experience and support for privatization led to contentious hearings over her appointment. The DeVos family has funded Republican causes for decades. She’s championed school choice allowing parents to send their children to privately managed charter or private voucher schools.

Betsy DeVos says we need school choice. She points to schools like Baltimore and says they’re struggling. Parents should have a say in how their children are educated, whether it be a voucher school or a charter school. What’s your response to that? What’s wrong with that argument?

ROBERT J. HELFENBEIN: Well, if you look at the track record, the data doesn’t prove that out. You can look at some of the schools that DeVos, herself, has funded and her foundation and what we see is really troubling curriculum. We don’t see higher achievement as a whole. Certainly, there’s a lot of work to be done in public education in urban districts just like Baltimore but I’m concerned that a lot of what DeVos is actually pushing is towards privatization and frankly ending public education as we know it.

JAISAL NOOR: As education secretary, critics say she’s also undermined civil rights protections for LGBTQ students. We spoke to some of the dozens who protested DeVos.

STEVEN LEYVA: Well, I thought it was important to be a part of what the students were doing and show some solidarity with them that we care about the achievement that they’re gaining today. I thought it was important to show up. That’s something that speaks louder than any kind of rhetoric is are you there with people? I think that community piece is important but I don’t think that I can give a tacit affirmation to anything that Betsy DeVos is going to say. I don’t want to appear complicit by being on stage, even silently sitting in agreement about that choice of having her to speak at our school.

JAISAL NOOR: You have students graduating today?

STEVEN LEYVA: I do. Various students in English. I’ve taught here for three years and it’s something that’s joyous. I want to celebrate with them but I also want them to see that choices have consequences and that we sometimes have to put our money where our mouth is.

DANI PITKOFF: She’s already rescinded federal guidances that have had crucial protections for survivors of sexual assault on campus. Campus has a different procedure when you bring sexual misconduct cases and there were certain protections put in place during the Obama era guidelines in the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, specifically the name of one of them in the 2014 Q&A which were two crucial guidelines that she rescinded and put in place her own Q&A which does not have the same amount of protection for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses all across our country.

JABARI LYLES: Well, our mission is all about making sure that all students have a safe place to learn including those students who are LGBT. We know that many of the actions that Betsy DeVos have set forth, the ones that she’s already done and the one that she intends to do will harm students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. I think back to the guidance that she rescinded earlier this year and that just goes to show that she is not here to protect trans students and that is our mission.

JAISAL NOOR: Talk about why you’re out here today instead of being inside when they’re graduating.

IAN POWER: It’s a tough position to be in because I don’t want to do anything to diminish today for the students, but I don’t think, I’m personally a little bewildered that we’re presented with someone who wants to defund and destroy institutions like this one that serves in a nontraditional student population and helps a lot of people graduate. We’re ranked very high for social mobility at this university and I think that can only be achieved through public socialized education.