What's It Like When Betsy DeVos Drops By Your School? These Students Can Tell You

Students at Kansas City Academy share their candid assessments of the controversial Secretary of Education.

Photo Credit: Kansas City Academy

Editor’s note: Last week Betsy DeVos dropped by Kansas City Academy, a private school in Kansas City, Missouri. Some of the students shared their candid assessments of the visit and their impressions of DeVos.

It wasn’t only about DeVos

Elly Martinez, Senior

Several days before Betsy DeVos’ visit to Kansas City Academy, I hand-drew new signs for the bathrooms: “Urinals + Stalls” and “Stalls Only.” Why? Well, it wasn’t only about DeVos, I can tell you that much.

No matter how many times my teachers refer to me as “miss” or my parents call me their “daughter” I’m nonbinary. Genderfluid, to be exact. Now, because I’m nonbinary, going to the restroom in public can be a huge pain. My excuse up until this year was that the women’s restrooms were usually cleaner, but on those days where I felt more masculine than anything, I felt like I couldn’t be seen using a restroom at all. Using the women’s restroom always felt awkward, because despite being out as genderfluid, many of the adults around me at school still think I’m a girl. Over half a decade later, too. Seriously? Yet, no matter how uncomfortable that felt, it made me feel like I was unable to go to the men’s restroom either, because if they see me as a girl, wouldn’t I be out of place in there too?

Then came the news Betsy DeVos was going to visit. I definitely did not agree with the principal’s choice to allow her to visit, especially since the school claims to be “progressive,” the opposite of her. When the principal invited news crews and reporters into the halls for the sweet free publicity that comes with welcoming a controversial politician, he bragged about the LGBT population within the school without thinking of the students’ feelings first. Some people may say otherwise, but that’s how a lot of us students saw it, anyway. So as I was sitting in class hearing people upset about how a progressive school would allow someone who made LGBT people feel unsafe in these hallowed chambers, it hit me. How progressive can this place claim to be if the staff flaunts the fact that trans people go here, yet they don’t accommodate non-binary students?

So within a couple days I had asked other students for their opinions on replacing the bathroom signs. The response I got was overwhelmingly for it; I didn’t hear one nay-sayer. So I quickly got the approval, and within a day we had some shiny new hand-made watercolor signs for the restrooms. With not a hint of gender to them, either. So, you could say it was a form of protest against DeVos, which it was, but it wasn’t just that. As this is my graduating year, I feel like making some simple signs for the restrooms was the least I could do to make the new generations of students who arrive to this school after me feel safer and more welcome in a “progressive” school like Kansas City Academy.

I honestly didn’t realize how big of a deal this was

Cooper Enochs, eighth grade

I honestly didn’t realize how big of a deal this was until my sister dropped me off Friday. Like, the protest was huge, and I didn’t expect that at all. That was all my first impression, but now that I’ve been given time to think about it I’ve come up with a better conclusion. That being said, I honestly do not understand why she would want to visit our school that stands against almost everything she stands for. I also do not understand why my principal would accept her visit, but I’ll get back to that later. But what truly angers me is she’s using this school as an example of a school that works. Her stance on public schools angers me to a point I can’t describe in text. And at first I might come off hypocritical since, well, I go to a private school, but the reason I’m here is public school isn’t properly funded and equipped with the capability to help me. And if they were better funded I’d like to think I wouldn’t have to be at KCA. But all of this leads me to believe the only reason my principal accepted her visit is to get the press to grow the school and possibly to feed his ego, but I don’t truly know. And I don’t know if I want the school to grow because part of the reason I’m here because it’s small and doesn’t have many kids. And that’s all I have to say.

The visitation of Betsy

Case Williams, Junior

Unsurprisingly, a visit from Betsy DeVos turned out to be as meaningful and productive as a visit from a ghost. Two weeks of chaotic buildup brought a disappointing conclusion — the visit was more of a whimper than a bang.

That buildup consisted of frantic cleaning, fresh coats of paint, and plenty of gardening. On the other hand, those who felt so inclined to speak up with their dissatisfaction about the visit got the student body together to make posters dedicated to the matter. Of course, it was not as if DeVos took the time to actually look at these. In a 90-minute visit, it would be naïve to actually think she would slow down to consider the concerns of students.

As one of the students who had the opportunity to ask the Secretary questions, the experience was dispiriting at best. In response to a question about her plans, she mentioned through a jumble of repetitive, pleasant-sounding word salad with assorted jargon as garnish her plans to do away with “burdensome regulations.” At that point my concern was that even regulations that are apparently burdensome can still be necessary to protect vulnerable students. My curiosity was piqued, so I asked for an example — just one example, that stuck out to her. I got a whole lot of not much at all. She mentioned there being regulations that required the documentation of certain information that, as she described it, may not be necessary. But no specifics. Insisting did no good. DeVos instead chose to turn to our principal, Kory Gallagher, for agreement. It became a laughing matter to them. I could not find the humor in what seemed to me to be a show of incompetence.

All the other questions she was asked were answered in a similar manner. I did not expect anything more from her, but it was still disheartening to see proof that two weeks of work were rendered essentially meaningless by the fact that the visitor was not particularly qualified for her position.

The publicity caused more havoc than any of the students or teachers actually wanted. I felt that students’ complex views on the visit were cut down for the sake of time. It all felt very shallow. In the aftermath of the visitation of Betsy, there seems to be the sense in the air that we may have crossed some unseen Rubicon. There is no way to know, at this point in time, but I feel inclined to agree.

Accepting and Understanding People

Harper Knecht, eighth grade

The reason I came to KCA is because of how accepting and kind everyone is. You might not agree with Betsy DeVos (I know that I don’t), but the entire point of the school is to at least try to accept people in who they are and not judge what they believe in. Being a student and protesting is showing that KCA students don’t let people in and don’t even try to understand them. That’s why I am going to be kind and respectful to DeVos and not protest when she visits. She’s a person. Maybe her beliefs aren’t what I agree with, but she is visiting this school to see who and what we are. KCA is about accepting and understanding people, so that’s what I’m going to try and do.

How to handle situations like this with grace

Camilla Cain, Junior

You don’t always get a say. As students at KCA we have the luxury of being so involved in what happens within these walls we forget that at any other school we would’ve not have had a say in a situation like this. The decision was made, and Betsy DeVos is coming whether we like it or not. In response to students who are unhappy about this situation, we all need to just suck it up and stop being babies about it because we are lucky to be educated in a place that cares enough about us as individuals, to listen to our opinions and emotions. Once we leave KCA we will certainly cross paths with people who do not value our values or believe in our beliefs, and there is no avoiding it; chaotically or peacefully, there is only coexisting. If we don’t learn how to handle situations like this with grace, and if we don’t learn how to coexist with others whose beliefs and values don’t align with ours, than the world will not respond to us as kindly (unlike the world we live in at KCA). In a perfect world everyone would agree with the same things and believe in the same things, but it’s not that way. I feel that we don’t have to agree in values and beliefs, politically or non-politically, but as growing people we should listen and observe, agree and disagree, but apply open-mindedness, civilness, and a certain amount of respect in the way we interact, for we are all human.

I’m just a stupid kid

Max Doyle, Junior

Personally, I am quite impartial to the decision of her coming. Whether or not she should be coming does not matter to me. She is, and that’s that. I most certainly do not agree with her opinions, nor do I agree with many of the things she has attempted to place into law. However, I feel that she should be welcomed into our school, and -- at least from our side -- on the one condition that we have the opportunity to change her mind, however unimaginably slight. To use an example mentioned at the Board meeting (of which I personally view that meeting as a semi-productive shitfest), if the leader of the KKK were to come into my home, sit down with me, and tell me, “Okay, I’ll hear you out. I’ll let you have a go at changing my mind,” I would take that without a second chance. Now, obviously, while she is not saying this to us (nor would I expect her to), the very opportunity is still being presented to us. I feel that, even if we couldn’t do it within reason, we would be remiss not to snatch it. But, even larger than any of that, I feel that we as a school should welcome her into this school more closely on the pretense of attempting to steal the media’s attention.

There are people with deeper pockets (vastly deeper) than mine who may be partial to a school like ours. People such as them may not ever even donate a penny to us. But this is all about chance, like winning the lottery, only the price (if we handle this visit well) is nearly nonexistent. However, if we handle this poorly, especially in front of the media, this could be very, very bad. I don’t trust people’s ability to cordially and respectfully tolerate someone for whom they hold no respect. Somewhere along the line people seem to have begun to think that screaming their opinions the loudest means they automatically win, but this is not true. People open up more when you have a calm, collected and respectful conversation with them (however there is always the chance that they wouldn’t be open regardless), not when you scream and shove signs in their face. If the media captures a high amount of our school joining the protesters, then we lose every bit of credibility and power that we held, no matter how small. We can be dismissed as “just another protester” (or some such), and thus we throw away our very large opportunity.

On the other side of things, people are angry at her, her policies and how this decision was made. They may want to join the protesters, some even saying that just demonstrating our everyday workings is cowardly, but I feel that protesting (in this case) is the more cowardly option. It shows that we have no self-control in respect to our ability to hold a calm and cogent argument, and that we simply want to “join into the hate”.

But what do I know? What do my opinions matter? I’m just a stupid kid.

All I really have to say

Rowan “Roo” Murphy, Junior

I am genuinely terrified. I’m worried this visit could be the end of KCA’s good name. That’s all I really have to say on the subject.

A cause of stress

Charlie James, eighth grade

I feel like she came and went, and that was very much a reason for mourning, but the fact that she was here was such a cause of stress that it threw off the energy of the building and everyone in it. I think inviting her into our building, a place of education and safety, is a violation of our core principals, and for what? A few minutes of airtime on your local news channel?

Thankfully, our teacher shut and locked the door

Sarah Prange, eighth grade

I felt rather unsure about this visit. I did feel very uncomfortable with the media here. In the beginning I didn’t really have an opinion, but now I’m absolutely sure that I did not enjoy this experience. I didn’t like these people in our school, and on top of that there were police with guns. I know that they were here to protect DeVos and us, the students, but it made me extremely uncomfortable. And in class we discussed the topic, but the media kept trying to listen in and get a clip of it or a few photos. Thankfully, our teacher shut and locked the door. I think that bothered everyone. We couldn’t exactly speak freely about the topic unless we wanted to be possibly heard by the media, or didn’t care about being heard, or something like that. We just had to escape from this scene, so we went for a walk and relaxed a little. I welcome anyone and everyone into this school, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept them.

It didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would

Aidan Ready, eighth grade

My reaction to Betsy DeVos coming to our school is, I hate to say this, but not really anything. I mean I didn’t see her, so it didn’t really impact me as much as I thought it would, and don’t get me wrong, I hate her, but when she came to our school, I personally didn’t feel all that different. Sure, I’ve heard other students’ and teachers’ opinions, and some were more upset than others, but for me personally, it didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would.

A strange day

Max Malinowski, Sophomore

Betsy DeVos’ visit was very chaotic, and it was not a normal Friday. At the beginning of the day when I arrived at the school, I saw many protesters outside the school, and it immediately made my heart race. I was really anxious when I got out of my car and walked down to the entrance we were supposed to go through. When I got inside the building, I talked with my friends, and we all thought it seemed rather chaotic in the building, with news people walking everywhere and students talking about Betsy DeVos. My first class was Modern World History and we weren’t originally scheduled to meet Betsy, but Government class needed to go to the room we were in, so we all ended up meeting her. She walked around the whole table and shook everyone’s hands, asking for our names and saying hello. It was a very surreal experience for me, since I wasn’t prepared for it at all.

Government class had some questions prepared, and really the things that she said are that our school is a good school, and more schools need to be like us, that’s it. I didn’t necessarily disagree with this, but it also doesn’t add anything to the table. I could’ve asked a question, but I couldn’t muster up the courage to do so. All in all, it was a strange day and it made me very anxious but I also enjoyed it in a way.

I slept in that day

Ethan Bennett, Junior

While approaching the day of her visit, I decided that, with permission from the principal, I would skip school. I made this decision the day before her visit, when the reporters came in with their cameras and lights. I didn’t want to be filmed, nor did I ever really want to meet DeVos, so I slept in that day, although I did ask how everyone felt about it, and everyone seemed to feel the same way. I saw pictures of friends posing with DeVos, with very obvious disgusted facial gestures. Besides not wanting to be filmed, or not wanting to see DeVos, I still don’t know why I didn’t want to show up. I feel bad, and I wish I had more to say, because … I talked about coming together and staying together often, and I did the opposite of that.

From my perspective, the visit seemed like an awful time, and even if I couldn’t have been much of an assistance, I wish I could’ve been there with the whole school.

I can’t wait until we stop talking about it

Jack Fritts, Junior

When DeVos visited I decided to stay home from school so as to not get involved in something I didn’t really care about. I have seen the news coverage, however, and it seems like nothing interesting happened in the slightest, so at least I didn’t miss anything. She seemed to enjoy the school and will probably never come back, so I can’t wait till we stop talking about it. People made such a big deal about her visit, but nothing happened.

We must educate the people

Lucy Gobber, Junior

Before Betsy DeVos’s visit to my school I remember not caring that she was coming. My main reason for not caring was because this is just high school, and once I am out, none of it will matter. But I realized it goes beyond high school. I realized her policies go beyond school. They will affect the whole of society. Public school is a necessary instrument in building and fortifying a strong society and public. We must educate the people to avoid an obsolete country, where a few rule the majority, because the majority are not educated enough to stand up for their rights. And that is what I learned after DeVos’s visit.

I stayed home

Marina Kaufman, Junior

I can't really say anything because I wasn't here in the morning, but I‘ve heard some things from people. So honestly I don't know really what happened during the hour and half she was here. I stayed home just to ignore all the drama and situation with protesters, police, press. I don't really know what else to say about this.

A normal, overly smiley woman

Claire Kovzan, Junior

Spencer and I had to teach Betsy DeVos how to make a ceramic bowl.  My interactions with her didn’t really seem as if I was talking to a politician but just to a normal, overly-smiley women (besides the 50 cameras in my face during that time). She was just so perky and obviously knew what faces and gestures to make to get a good shot for the press and asked us superficial questions like “What’s your favorite color?,” similar to the questions you’d ask a grade-schooler. I wasn’t in the conversations where students talked to her and asked her questions about vouchers and the Title IX stuff, but from what the students told me she never really answered their questions directly, and her responses seemed clearly scripted.  Overall, the vibe I got from her was just very fake smiles and just stuff you’d expect from a someone with power talking to people they view as inferior because of our age.

She asked us questions

T. J. Moore, Junior

When Betsy DeVos came to our school she had lots of press and news people with her the whole time, which was kind of overwhelming. The first class she went to was a meeting before school started. Then she headed off to a culinary class where people showed her how to make food for that day's lunch. Then she went to a ceramics class where our class -- which I was in -- showed her how to make a pinch pot out of clay. Once she finished making the pinch pot she asked us questions like “How long have you all gone to this school?” and “Do you like ceramics?” and “What is your favorite class and why?” Then she left the ceramics class to go to a government class where people talked about stuff. Then Betsy DeVos talked to some students and teachers and then left the building with her bodyguards and news people. Outside of the school there were a lot of protesters and lots of police. Some of the students were outside protesting that day with signs and posters. There was a lot going on that day, and I’m glad it is over with.  

Protesters booing and swearing

Josh Ramphal, Junior

I really don't have anything to say about her visit because I didn't even see her that day. All I heard were the protesters booing and swearing at her when she left.

I spent the entire visit out front holding a sign

Kai Smith, Junior

The visit has come and gone, and it was intensely stressful the entire time. In a way, I am glad that she came to KCA, because we can use this experience to open our eyes to see the real issues at hand. Her being allowed to come here has shown me that under the current administration, KCA is slowly dying. Sure the school is thriving. We’re bringing in more people and making more money, but at what cost? The true values of the school are being spat upon, students are being exploited, teachers are not being treated fairly, but it’s all okay because money fixes everything right? I do, however, have great respect for the students and teachers that worked so hard to show Betsy what our school is really about and who we are. I spent the entire visit out front holding a sign that said “We will not stand for the tolerance of intolerance.”

Bumping into her and having an awkward greeting

Troy Thurlow, Junior

I think it went pretty okay. I thought the visit was pretty interesting besides me bumping into her and having an awkward greeting after that or almost being pulled out of my truck by the police because they didn’t think I attended here. For the most part I’d say it was okay. Pretty much after that I really just went back to the regular school routine, although it was different that day. I mean, just all of that can't die down in a couple of hours, but from what I heard she sounded almost scripted, probably was, when asked a question. She was like a “statue” or in a “constant loop” with the same responses. Even though this event might have been exciting to some, it just felt like a kind of normalish day, disregarding the press, police, protesters, and Betsy herself.

The students exceeded my expectations for their behavior

Adam Vescovi, Junior

I did not get to see or interact with Betsy DeVos even once during her visit to my school, but just about everyone else did. I was very disappointed in myself for this, but what else could I do? It all happened very fast. It was very chaotic, especially with the school being surrounded by protesters, policemen, press, U.S. Marshals, etc. It was a very strange day to say the least. From what I heard, DeVos did not seem like a very sincere person. People were saying that she refused to answer questions asked to her about more serious subjects, or that she would just keep repeating answers or would just keep giving the same answer, word-for-word, to different questions. It’s pretty disappointing to hear about that. I would definitely have expected more from the Education Secretary of the U.S. I am at least glad that the students exceeded my expectations for their behavior. It’s almost somewhat disappointing in all honesty. I feel like maybe more could have been said or some harder questions could have been asked just based on what I had heard (most who interacted with her felt the same). I really wish I could have been interviewed by the press, but as soon as there was an opportunity I was immediately held hostage in French class, so I could not. Overall it was somewhat chaotic. I did not have much of an experience, but I am hoping (although it probably will not happen) that DeVos could have maybe walked out of here with some new ideas. I am hoping that this could have initiated at least one change in something. One thing I do know is that the school now has much more publicity, and I am interested to see what comes of it. Until then, these are my thoughts post DeVos.

Taking the scenic route to get to the solution

Spencer Weis, Junior

I'm not really sure what to say about Betsy DeVos because I don’t know much about her. I guess I understand that she wants higher educational standards, but I don’t think that trying to essentially rework the whole educational system is going to help with that by any means. Trying to allow all children to attend a private school off of vouchers could ruin the school's financial stability, assuming that they will even be able to stay open. Then if the solution to that is to provide the schools with government-sourced financial aid, it’s essentially turning all of the private schools into public schools. It feels like you would be taking the scenic route to get to the solution. From what I know about her that's all that I disagree with at this moment. I can’t say that to my knowledge there is anything about her Title IX ideas that I disagree with. It sounds like she just wants trials that are a little less stacked against the accused and less guilty until proven innocent, which I agree with.

I think it was important for her to show up, but I don’t feel like it should stop here

Tiger Baker, Senior

I think that her answers to questions were vague and made you think positively, which to me makes me feel like she was just trying to smile, but she didn’t really know what she was doing. Like, she has an agenda, but she sees no negative outcome. So in a way she’s not lying because she convinced herself that what she is doing is right. I hope that she understands who we are. We’re not just another private school. We have our own entity. You can’t walk into this school and try to say anything similar. Most schools have three or four floors, this one has two. Schools tend to have matching paint throughout the school. We have student art on those walls. Schools have basic lunches where you get chocolate milk and some barely “choice meat.” What I’m saying is that THIS private school works for what the students need but we still need other types of schools. Some students would rather hide behind a taller one and seven hundred other students. Rather than trying to get rid of public schools, just put better planning and money into it! The reason they’re failing is because they rely on security guards and police officers to make sure kids get to class on time. I don’t know about you, but being in that building Friday made me scared. I know they were not gonna harm us, but this school doesn’t normally have security guards or police officers, so it's scary.

If people who put their kids in public schools are poor then raise money for that. Make incomes higher. The reality of it is is that minimum wage can’t be lived on anymore. Colleges used to be so much cheaper, and so did houses and apartments. If you’re poor you generally get a crappy home and a crappy school, causing the school environment to be full of kids who are constantly bored and never passionate. But you know one thing they can be passionate about? Fighting. Because that's all they feel like they were given. That’s the way people listen to them. I was in a public school where if you didn’t have someone afraid of you then you were afraid of someone. We need to realize as a country that we can’t keep living in these conditions. Like, goddamnit, if you’re rich then help out the poor. And when the poor get rich, they can help out the other poor. We need to stop being so concerned about how much money we can keep but rather how we can distribute it among the community to have an equal community. Because in this world there are no communities anymore. Sure people can be friends, or they are hired to do it, but no one actually cares about their neighbor if they are a block too far away.

We need to stop talking about community and actually just be a community. We need to realize that we’re not united. It’s every man for themselves out here. When people are homeless we stay away from them because to be homeless is to be a failure. But what if they were born into that? You don’t know someone's life until you talk to them, and yet we live every day judging people for what they don't have. We like to focus on what rich people have and what poor people don’t have. It’s easy right? The rich person has X amount of cars and a really nice house. This poor person doesn’t have insurance or a job. They also don't have healthy kids. They don't have friends. We need more money. And we need to know how to wisely spend and save. We are in debt and will always be in debt. We see debt as a good thing. Credit cards, student loans, car loans. It’s all to feel like you’re gaining something when you’re actually losing your soul to be paying something off for the rest of your life. We need to wake up. It’s not okay to just be fine with what is going on anymore. We need to fight. I know I have the right to say this because of how lucky I am, but I’m also saying it for the people that can’t get in, people who just weren’t lucky enough to be where I am.

I think about all the times I would’ve been homeless, but someone helped out. A friend of ours would help out. That's community. Being poor or homeless is not fun. Man, if a rich person experienced not having anything I wonder how long they would last? Why be so rich that it would cost a fortune to repair a car? Why not just help someone else get a car? There is no other reason that rich people want to keep their money other than greed. Because money is life to them! I’m not saying all rich people are inherently evil, but there are rich people that constantly complain about the world not being united, and then do nothing about it. For example If I was really rich and knew I could blow money and not care then I would help people out. People should try to help each other. We have always had sides in this world. If you like something then you are that something. Then people judge upon the thing you have. This world is so full of people used to fighting for themselves that when they get money they hold onto it, right? If you buy a million-dollar car then you’re going to want to keep it polished and just drive it around. Instead you could sell it and spread the wealth among the poor communities.

Anyway back to Betsy DeVos … I think it was important for her to show up, but I don’t feel like it should stop here. We should continue fighting for what we believe in without having someone we’re against to be here. Like, why can’t we just always be doing this? It’s so fake. I hate cleaning up just because someone is coming! If someone is going to be in my life they need to see what we are and who we are. I don't even know what else to say. I mean, why does it matter what I do say? Who cares? I'm just a nineteen-year-old senior in high school who is lucky enough to have a wifi signal. You have to have money to be of importance because then people want what you have. If you don't have something that they want then they won't want you. Why care about a poor person?

Kansas City Academy is a small private middle and high school in Kansas City, Missouri.

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