The U.S. Marshals Service says they are now providing security for Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, after a handful of protesters blocked her from entering a Washington middle school.
The move is unusual for the Education Department, which typically has a team of civil servants guarding the secretary, and for the marshals, law enforcement officers who are generally responsible for protecting federal judges, transporting prisoners, investigating fugitives and protecting witnesses.
The last Cabinet member protected by marshals was a director of the Office of National Drug Policy, according to Lynzey Donahue, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service. That office ceased to be a Cabinet-level position in 2009.
Donahue said that for security reasons, she could not provide any information about the number of marshals assigned to DeVos, nor whether they are providing round-the-clock protection. It is unclear how long the arrangement will last.
Education Department officials did not respond to repeated requests for information about why they have called on the marshals or what the security team normally assigned to cover the secretary is doing now.
Federal policy allows the Education Department to pay other agencies for services, but it is unclear whether the department is reimbursing the marshals for the cost of deploying a security team.
Marshals began providing security for DeVos on Monday, Feb. 13, the first weekday after DeVos encountered protesters outside the District's Jefferson Middle School Academy, Donahue said.
The demonstration was mostly peaceful, but several protesters attempted to block a government car from entering the street in front of the school, and a few others tried to bar DeVos from entering the building. Video circulated by WJLA, the local ABC television affiliate, showed a member of the department's security team steering DeVos away from the protesters, guiding her by the arm as she returned to her government vehicle.
One of the protesters who blocked the secretary appeared to have touched her, according to a video circulated by Fox5DC. D.C. police arrested one person for assaulting a police officer.
The incident was a sign that DeVos entered office as a deeply polarizing figure after winning confirmation only by the slimmest of margins. A Michigan billionaire, she spent three decades lobbying for private school vouchers, charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools. While her supporters say she is a bold reformer, her detractors worry DeVos aims to undermine public schools by redirecting taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools.
The protest DeVos encountered was not the first for the team responsible for protecting the education secretary. In 2015, for example, anti-testing protesters confronted then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan when he visited an elementary school in Chicago. Duncan's driver turned down a dead-end alley, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, compelling Duncan to exit his vehicle and walk past chanting protesters about a half block to the school.
"I entrusted my life and my family's lives to that team for seven years," Duncan said of the department's security detail. "They could not have been more professional, more committed, more thoughtful. I can't say enough about how much I respected them. A couple protesters? That's part of the job. You embrace that. You don't run away. You have to deal with people. You have to work outside your comfort zone."
Many of the security personnel are former Secret Service personnel who have been at the department for many years, as far back as Education Secretary Rod Paige, who served from 2001 to 2005 under former President George W. Bush, according to former department officials. One former official said the agency's security detail has protected multiple secretaries and are "top-notch security professionals." Duncan said he "never for one second doubted" the security team's ability to do their jobs, and he never saw a need to ask for additional protection.
"That's a waste of taxpayer money," Duncan said of the use of U.S. marshals.
In an interview Wednesday with the conservative publication Townhall, DeVos said she had concerns that some Education Department employees were sympathetic to the Obama administration based on experiences she had in the first few days on the job.
"I . . . would not be surprised if there are also those that would try to subvert the mission of this organization and this department," Devos said. Asked what she could do about that, the Education Secretary said, "Whatever can be done will be done and it will be done swiftly and surely."