School police departments across the country have taken advantage of free military surplus gear, stocking up on mine resistant armored vehicles, grenade launchers and scores of M16 rifles.
At least 26 school districts across the country have participated in the Pentagon's surplus program, which is not new but came under scrutiny in recent months after police responded to Ferguson, Missouri, protesters with tear gas, armored trucks and in riot gear. Law enforcement agencies used the program to equip themselves during learner budget years, and since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, schools increasingly participated. Federal records showschools in California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Utah obtained surplus military gear.
Now, amid increasing criticism, several school districts say they'll give some of the equipment back. Nearly two dozen education and civil liberties groups sent a letter earlier this week to the Pentagon and the Justice and Education departments urging a stop to transfers of military weapons to school police.
The Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation's second largest school district covering 710 square miles and enrolling more than 900,000 students — said in a statement this week that it would it would remove three grenade launchers it had acquired under the program in 2001 because they "are not essential life-saving items within the scope, duties and mission" of the district's police force. But the district plans to keep the 60 M16s and a MRAP — a military vehicle used in Iraq and Afghanistan that is built to withstand mine blasts — it received.
District police Chief Steve Zipperman told The Associated Press that the M16s are used for training, and the MRAP, which is parked off campus in a lot, was acquired because the district could not afford to buy armored vehicles that might be used to protect officers and help students in a school shooting.
"That vehicle is used in very extraordinary circumstances involving a life-saving situation for an armed threat," Zipperman said. "Quite frankly I hope we never have to deploy it."
Los Angeles school board member Steve Zimmer said the district will likely also let go of the MRAP, too. The board was told of the specific equipment the district had received only after the protests last month in Ferguson, Zimmer said.
"I think that we're going to end up for both public relations purposes and because I don't think we really, really need it, we'll probably end up giving that actual vehicle to another jurisdiction," Zimmer said.
State records show at least five other California districts have received gear under the surplus program, which the Defense Department views as a way to get rid of equipment it no longer needs.
San Diego Unified School District is painting its MRAP white and hoping to use the Red Cross symbol on it to assuage community worries, said Ursula Kroemer, a district spokeswoman. The MRAP has been stripped of all weapon mounts and turrets and will be outfitted with medical supplies and teddy bears for use in emergencies to evacuate students and staff, she said. Adding: "This thing is a bulletproof safe haven on wheels."
Jill Poe, police chief in the Southern California's Baldwin Park school district, said she'll be returning the three M16 rifles acquired under her predecessor.
"Honestly, I could not tell you why we acquired those," Poe said. "They have never been used in the field and they will never been used in the field. They're locked up in our armory ... I was looking to ship those back because they're never going to be of use to us."