A U.S. Department of Defense program that has been criticized for “militarizing” local police departments by providing them with free surplus equipment has also provided school police around the country with armored vehicles, semiautomatic rifles, and grenade launchers.
The revelations about the military equipment provided through the agency’s 1033 surplus equipment program have stoked concerns by civil rights groups that law enforcement is overreaching into school matters and contributing to a punitive atmosphere.
Since the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, districts around the country have stepped up security measures, adding new equipment, police officers, and armed guards.
But civil rights and student organizations have said the role of school police too often extends beyond securing buildings and into routine student discipline matters that should not involve law enforcement, especially for minority students and students with disabilities, who bear a disproportionate share of such punishments.
Concerns about overly harsh discipline are intensified by the presence of intimidating military equipment in and around schools, which “only exacerbate existing tensions,” civil rights groups said in a September letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
“Arming school police with military-grade weapons and gear creates the potential to contribute to climates that students of color already experience as hostile, and contributes to the normalization of the criminalization of these youth, worsening educational outcomes, and producing no public safety benefits,” says the letter, signed by the Washington-based NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and 22 other organizations.
The 1033 program, which has distributed more than $5 billion in property since it was created in 1997, has been a target of scrutiny since some of its equipment was used by police in what many saw as a heavy-handed response to protesters in Ferguson, Mo., following a police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown there in August.
Since the protests, in which crowds were hit with rubber bullets and tear gas and confronted by officers in armored vehicles, President Obama has ordered a review of the program.
A database from the Defense Department shows that tactical gear and weapons from the 1033 program have been provided to school police departments in at least 22 districts in eight states—California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Utah.
Surplus equipment provided to police in districts as large as the 654,000-student Los Angeles school system includes M-14 and M-16 rifles, extended magazines, automatic pistols, armored plating, tactical vests, SWAT gear, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicles, and grenade launchers, which are used by police agencies to deploy tear gas and smoke in crowd-control situations.
School-based police agencies that received equipment from the Defense Department said most of it would only be used in the event of a mass shooting. A spokesman for the Defense Department said some school agencies may have acquired equipment they would likely only use in cooperation with other law-enforcement agencies outside of the school environment.
But such statements did little to calm criticisms from concerned parents and newspaper editorial boards after the equipment made headlines. In response, the Los Angeles School Police Department said it would return three grenade launchers it received through the 1033 program.
But the department said it would not return 61 rifles—automatic weapons that have been modified to be semiautomatic, which it called “essential life-saving items"—and an MRAP vehicle it said it would only use “under extraordinary circumstances,” with approval from the police chief and the superintendent.
San Diego Superintendent Cindy Marten, on the other hand, said the 132,000-student district’s police department would return the MRAP it had intended “for use as a rescue vehicle in a rescue situation.”
“Some members of our community are not comfortable with the district having this vehicle,” Ms. Marten said in a statement. “If any part of our community is not comfortable with it, we cannot be comfortable with it. The safety and security of our students and schools is a top priority and we need to balance this priority with what the community’s perceptions are on how we best serve and protect.”
A San Diego schools spokesperson said the district has been instructed to hold onto the MRAP until the Defense Department can address a bottleneck of agencies seeking to return equipment and find a new location for the vehicle.
U.S. Reps. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, introduced a bill in September that would restrict what equipment could be distributed through the 1033 program.
In their letter, the civil rights organizations urged federal agencies to create a comprehensive list of what military equipment school-based agencies have acquired through the program and to prohibit school-based police from participating in 1033 in the future.
Defense Department spokesperson Mark Wright, said the agency relies on state-based coordinators to determine if requests for equipment are appropriate. School-based police departments are “treated just like any other agency” in the 1033 program, he said.
“We are not organized and we are not qualified to pass judgement on the needs of local law-enforcement agencies,” Mr. Wright said. “If they say they need an M-16, we take their word for it.”
Education Department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt would not take a position on whether it was appropriate for school police to receive equipment through the 1033 program.
“Secretary [Arne] Duncan believes that the most effective means for preventing violence in schools is the presence of adults who let all students know they are cared for, valued, and understood at school, and students who support their peers and look out for each other,” Ms. Nolt said in an email.
In civil rights guidance on school discipline it issued in January, the Education Department advised schools that they are accountable for ensuring that the police units they supervise or employ under agreements with local agencies treat all students fairly and without discrimination. Information from the 2011-12 school year released in March by the federal education agency’s office for civil rights shows that, while black students made up 16 percent of students enrolled in schools that year, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.
The Hoover, Ala.-based National Association of School Resource Officers has advised its members that school police should stay out of routine discipline. The agency does not take a position on what equipment officers should use, military surplus or otherwise, President Kevin Quinn said.
And, he added, stopping the flow of equipment to schools through the 1033 program may not bring that significant of a change, especially in the use of high-powered rifles like M-14s and M-16s, the most popular piece of equipment acquired by school police through the program. Some school police have said firearms that are more powerful than the pistols they typically carry would be necessary in the event of an attack by a shooter carrying a semiautomatic weapon.
A growing number of school officers have access to semiautomatic rifles, which are typically locked in safes or in police vehicles, Mr. Quinn said. And schools that don’t have access to 1033 equipment have acquired those weapons on the private market.
“If that’s something that they feel is necessary, we’re not going to say otherwise,” he said.
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as Military Surplus Gear Given to School Police