School districts to give some military gear back after criticism
At least 26 school districts have participated in the Pentagon's surplus program
By Tami Abdollah
LOS ANGELES — 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 have participated in the Pentagon's surplus program, which is not new but has come under scrutiny after police responded to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, last month with tear gas, armored military trucks and riot gear.
Now, amid that increased 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 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 military vehicle — known as an MRAP — used in Iraq and Afghanistan that was built to withstand mine blasts.
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."
Law enforcement agencies around the country equipped themselves during learner budget years by turning to the Pentagon program, which the Defense Department has viewed as a way to get rid of gear it no longer needs. Since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, school districts increasingly participated.
Federal records show schools in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas and Utah obtained surplus military gear. In addition to the Los Angeles school district, at least five other California districts have received equipment, state records show.
In response to police tactics after a white policeman fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old in Ferguson, the White House said it would conduct a review of the Pentagon surplus program, and Congress also plans hearings on it.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said while there's a role for surplus equipment, especially defensive gear, going to local police departments, "it's difficult to see what scenario would require a grenade launcher or a mine resistant vehicle for a school police department."
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."
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press