Last week, Congress was up in arms over a Pentagon program that distributes surplus military equipment to local law enforcement agencies—with many lawmakers questioning why police officers in a small Oklahoma town would need a mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicle intended for the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now reports are surfacing that there is an even more surprising recipient of the Pentagon’s leftovers--- local school districts.
San Diego Unified School District has one of the Defense Department’s old MRAPs—the same heavily armed vehicle used to transport soldiers through warzones.
KPBS, a local TV station, said the district had been looking for a large vehicle to use in the case of an emergency—like a school shooting or natural disasters. When the MRAP became available through the Pentagon’s 1033 program, the school district snatched it up.
“When we have an emergency at a school, we’ve got to get in and save kids,” Local police captain, Joe Florentino told San Diego’s KPBS. “Our idea is: How can we get in and pull out a classroom at a time of kids if there’s an active shooter? If there’s a fire [or] if there’s an earthquake, can we rip down a wall? Stuff like that,” he said.
Meanwhile, KHOU—a local station in Houston, Texas, reported that 10 different school districts in the area had received military equipment through the program—including guns and armor in order for the schools’ police officers to respond to emergencies in the wake of school shootings like Sandy Hook.
These revelations have sparked concern from civil rights groups. According to Talking Points Memo, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed, a legal advocacy group, sent a letter this week to the Defense Department questioning the program, which has transferred military equipment to school districts in at least eight states including Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada and Utah—all at taxpayer expense.
“Taxpayer dollars should be steered away from investments in increased law enforcement and militarization of schools and towards supporting solutions that address the root causes of school safety concerns and provide students with the services and supports they need to succeed," TPM reported the letter said.
A Defense Logistics Agency official would not comment on which school districts have received equipment, but did not deny that school districts are recipients of the Pentagon’s program.
The now-controversial 1033 program was highlighted after the militarized response of police in Ferguson, Missouri, to protests about the killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager shot by a white police officer. Images of armored vehicles in the St. Louis suburb prompted questions about police departments having access to battlefield equipment.
Now lawmakers and policy experts are taking a closer look. Last week, a Senate committee grilled DOD officials about 1033 and the accountability over the military’s surplus equipment. Lawmakers are also concerned about whether local law enforcement are properly trained to use this equipment.
A spokesperson for the San Diego school district could not be reached for comment regarding the school officers’ training and experience with MRAPS, but Florentino, the police captain, told KPBS he understands people are concerned about police militarization.
“I can totally see people thinking, ‘Oh, my God. Are they going to be rolling armored vehicles into our schools, and what the hell’s going on?’” Florentino said. “Hopefully, we’ll never have to use it for the real deal.”
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