Facing criticism over her muted response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Thursday condemned those "tragic and unthinkable" events and blasted "neo-Nazis and other racist bigots" in a letter to staff.
DeVos' email to Education Department employees came after she was criticized for insufficiently condemning the violence, in which a young woman was killed when a driver plowed into a group of counter-protesters at the rally by white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Nineteen other people were injured.
DeVos had posted twice on Twitter, saying she was "disgusted" by the behavior and hateful rhetoric displayed in Charlottesville. She also retweeted a tweet by Melania Trump who also condemned the violence.
In an opinion piece published by the Hechinger Report, Andre Perry, a former education official from DeVos' hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, charged that "DeVos' generic and woefully insufficient statement effectively sanitized the hate" by the white supremacist demonstrators.
President Donald Trump has also faced widespread criticism for blaming "both sides" for the violence.
In her email Thursday afternoon, Devos said: "The views of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other racist bigots are totally abhorrent to the American ideal. We all have a role to play in rejecting views that pit one group of people against another."
"Such views are cowardly, hateful and just plain wrong," she added.
DeVos stressed that the department's mission was to "ensure all students have equal access to a safe, nurturing, quality learning environment free from discrimination or intimidation."
"Violence and hate will never be the answer," DeVos said. "We must engage, debate and educate."
Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said DeVos' email was an open letter, but Hill would not directly address the question of why no separate public statement was issued.
In an interview with The Associated Press last week, DeVos said she should have been more vocal in condemning "the ravages of racism in this country" when talking about African-Americans' access to higher education in the segregation era. DeVos' remarks earlier this year that historically black colleges and universities were "real pioneers" of school choice offended many in the African-American community.