A U.S. Department of Defense program—criticized for “militarizing” local police departments by providing them with surplus combat-grade weapons, armored vehicles, and equipment—has provided similar supplies to school police around the country, a coalition of civil rights groups said in a letter Monday.
The groups, led by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, asked leaders of the U.S. departments of education, defense, and justice to end grants to schools through the Defense Department’s 1033 program, criticized by some senators following protests in Ferguson, Mo., last month, during which police responded with millitary-grade vehicles and gear. They also asked the agencies to evaluate how much of such equipment has flowed to school agencies.
“These events also underscore the negative impact of militarization on the already tenuous relationship between communities of color and law enforcement,” the letter said of events in Ferguson. “Arming school police with military weapons poses the same risks to a much more vulnerable population—the nation’s schoolchildren. The increasing presence of police in schools has already proven problematic, particularly for students of color and those with disabilities. 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.”
Though the groups could not create a comprehensive list, they used published reports to determine that at least 22 school districts in California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Utah participate in the 1033 program, the letter said. Equipment provided to districts includes M-14 and M-16 rifles, extended magazines, automatic pistols, armored plating, tactical vests, SWAT gear, grenade launchers, and Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (or MRAP) vehicles, according to the organizations.
“While some school administrators and police departments claim that such weaponry is needed to respond to potential violence post-Sandy Hook and Columbine, research concludes that there is no evidence that these types of weapons would be effective in combating or responding to these situations,” the letter says.
That analysis is in line with what school safety experts told me on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. While schools may be tempted to commit to big-ticket, highly visible items out of a zeal for student safety; well-practiced plans, controlled access at entrances, and simple products like shatter-resistant film on entry windows are the most important steps leaders can take, they said.
And federal data show that, even without military equipment present, black students are more likely to be arrested at school than their peers of other races. Information from the 2011-12 school year released in March by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights showed 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.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.