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Pentagon gives military weapons to US schools

Washington: The US Defence Department program accused of fuelling the militarisation of local law enforcement is stirring controversy again, this time for providing equipment and weapons to school police.

Law enforcement agencies affiliated with at least 120 schools, colleges and universities have received gear through the program, according to a Washington Post review of data from 33 states. The items received include at least five grenade launchers, hundreds of rifles and eight mine-resistant, ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles, the hulking machines designed to withstand the kind of roadside attacks seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In some cases, the equipment has been altered and its use limited to a narrow list of severe circumstances, such as campus shootings and natural disasters. But the practice of transferring weapons, particularly to schools, is drawing criticism for the tone it sets.

"This isn't just about the weapons, it's also about inserting these weapons in school climates that are already fraught with tension and hostility between students of colour and school police," says Janel George, education policy counsel with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People Legal Defence and Educational Fund. "It's about inserting that and exacerbating those tensions."

In a Monday letter to the head of the agency that administers the program, Attorney-General Eric Holder, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the NAACP and nearly two dozen other groups focused on juvenile issues called on the federal government to stop the transfer of weapons to school police through the 1033 program and provide a comprehensive accounting of all equipment provided to school districts nationwide.

The 1033 Program — named for the section of the National Defense Authorisation Act that created it — allows the Defence Department to transfer equipment it no longer needs to local law enforcement agencies, with preference given to those that want to use it in counter-drug and counter-terrorism activities. Since the inception of a precursor program in the early 1990s, more than $US5.1 billion ($5.6 billion) of equipment has been transferred to local law enforcement.

Though the Ferguson police did not benefit greatly from the program, their response to protests, riots and looting after the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown last month sparked a national discussion about the militarisation of local police forces, prompting a presidential review and Senate hearing.

Those early criticisms were largely focused on equipment transferred to local law enforcement, but agencies affiliated with educational institutions have greatly benefited from the 1033 program too.

More than 120 such agencies have received equipment of some kind through the program, with more than a dozen schools, 30 colleges, and 40 universities having received weapons, according to The Washington Post review of data. Those transfers include nearly 900 M14s, M16s and other rifles, and at least 190 pistols and 41 shotguns. In some instances, institutions have or are in the process of transferring such weapons away.

The program transfers more than weapons, however. School-affiliated law enforcement agencies have received dozens of laptops and computers, tools, apparel, vehicles and other supplies.

In its letter, the NAACP describes the scope of the 1033 Program's transfers to public schools as difficult to determine, yet "alarming" based on local reports. Indeed, data supplied by the federal government is not specific enough to identify school agencies, and each state has a different process for obtaining more detailed records.

Most of the data in this review was provided directly to The Post by state officials, though some states declined to share the information. Data for nearly a dozen states in the review were obtained by MuckRock, a collaborative news site dedicated to sharing government documents online. The data varied greatly by state, but most provided information through recent months. Because the review is not comprehensive, all counts in this article represent minimums.

The Los Angeles School Police Department, which did not provide comment in time for publication, is among the biggest public-school beneficiaries of the program, having received 61 M16 rifles, three grenade launchers and one MRAP, according to state data. (In at least one instance elsewhere, a 1033-supplied grenade launcher was converted to shoot tear-gas.) The San Diego Unified Schools police also acquired an MRAP — intended to be used as a rescue vehicle — sparking a recent controversy and leading one board trustee to deride the acquisition by the school police as a "misguided priority".

Florida's Pinellas County Schools Police Department has received 22 M16s in recent weeks and is developing a plan for training officers and securing the equipment, says Pinellas County schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra.

"Our hope is that our officers never need to use this equipment," she says, noting the firearms are intended for emergency use.

While many of the school-affiliated agencies receiving weapons represent large districts — Pinellas County Schools educate more than 100,000 students — some smaller districts have participated in the program as well.

Texas's Aledo Independent School District, home to roughly 5000 students, received four M16s and one M14 — all unused — during the 2011 to 2012 school year, but the district quickly decided it had no need for them, says Derek Citty, who became Aledo's superintendent last summer.

"Philosophically, they just didn't work with what we were trying to do," Mr Citty said. Aside from one weapon being tested at a firing range, the firearms have never been used by the school police and the district has offered them, through the program, to any other agency that wants them.

"We're waiting for somebody else to come and get them," Mr Citty said.

By Niraj Chokshi / Washington Post
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