Last week, President Obama issued an executive order to regulate the use of military equipment within local police departments, as part of an ongoing effort to address police violence in communities of color. Images of officers rolling through the streets of Ferguson – and, more recently, Baltimore – in armored tanks pushed the issue of police militarization into the national spotlight. But it's not just police departments that have been outfitted with military weapons. Through the Department of Defense's 1033 program, created in 1997, K-12 school districts across the country have received equipment like mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, grenade launchers, assault rifles and an outfitted SWAT team. One district in Utah alone received a dozen AR-15s, the weapon notoriously used in the Sandy Hook school shooting.
The president's new rules restrict how law enforcement agencies can acquire certain equipment. However, the rules specify that departments "solely serving schools ranging from kindergarten through grade 12" are now excluded – they can no longer receive military-grade equipment through the 1033 program. Advocates say this change marks an important, if incomplete, shift in school policing.
"I definitely think it's a step in the right direction," Janel George, senior education policy council at the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund tells Rolling Stone. "It does show that the administration, particularly the local law enforcement equipment working group, heard our concerns."
The Legal Defense Fund, along with Texas Appleseed, a social and economic justice advocacy group, wrote a letter last September to the Defense Logistics Agency, urging the Department of Defense to end the 1033 program's relationship with K-12 schools. In the letter, the groups note that Texas and California top the list of states in which school districts are known to have received weapons, with 10 districts in Texas having received a total of 82 M-16 and M-14 rifles, 25 automatic pistols and 45,000 rounds of ammunition, and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) receiving 61 M-16 rifles, three grenade launchers and an MRAP. Amid criticism last fall, the LAUSD returned its grenade launchers but initially kept its MRAP, which it then returned two months later.
Obama's executive order will affect school districts differently depending on how the schools are policed. Those with a dedicated K-12 school police department, like Los Angeles, are now excluded from acquiring materials on the "controlled equipment list," which includes things like armored vehicles and certain riot gear. But there's no language in the executive order about schools that don't have their own police departments. "The vast majority of schools in Texas and nationally are served not by departments under school district control, but rather through [contracts] with local law enforcement," Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler tells Rolling Stone. "While we are certainly happy to see this [new restriction] included, it is not clear that this will ultimately affect most of the school police programs in place in Texas and elsewhere."
L.A., on the other hand, is the second largest school district in the country after New York City, and has its own police force, the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD). It's the largest dedicated school police department in the nation, with a well-documented history of racially disparate policing. Though L.A. public schools' student body is 10 percent white, 10 percent black and 72 percent Latino, a black student in an L.A. public school is four-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested or ticketed than a white student, according to a 2013 Strategy Center report. Black and Latino students experienced 93 percent of the arrests and tickets in the 2011-12 school year.
While L.A. schools have implemented recent reforms to address these disparities – like banning suspension for "willful defiance," a subjective discipline infraction that disproportionately targeted African-American students – students and educators alike argue that military weapons should not be in the hands of a school police force with a history of racist over-policing.
What's more, the new Obama administration rules do not clearly specify whether, or when, school districts across the country that have obtained weapons through the 1033 program will have to give them back. Manuel Criollo, director of organizing at the group Fight for the Soul of the Cities, says that in Los Angeles alone, at least 61 M-16 assault rifles remain in in the hands of the school district's police department – a figure confirmed by LASPD Chief Steve Zipperman last September, and again in November after the district returned its MRAP.
Criollo's organization has repeatedly demanded that LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines give up the military equipment; the group has also asked for a complete inventory of what remains. Cortines responded in a letter in January:
"Currently, the LASPD does NOT possess any military-donated vehicles, launchers or items recognizable as, and exclusively for military use. All current weapons and firearms deployed in the field by the LASPD are standard law-enforcement issued models that have not been received or procured through a military equipment donation."
Neither the L.A. school district nor the LASPD responded to an email and phone call from Rolling Stone requesting comment on this story, so it is not known if those 61 M-16s – or any other similar items – are still in the LASPD's possession. But Criollo notes that Cortines' statement does not deny that the department has weapons; rather, it denies that it has military-grade weapons. He believes the M-16s still reside with the district. "The district has publicly acknowledged returning the MRAP and three grenade launchers but has not responded to our demand for full transparency of all weapons in their possession nor those received through the 1033 program," Criollo says. "We know there are at least 61 M-16s currently unaccounted for, that were in the possession of the school police in the beginning of the school year."
"LAUSD is basically justifying the maintenance of the M-16 assault rifles, arguing that the M-16 has become a standard police weapon," he says. Indeed, thousands of assault rifles – historically military weapons – have been transferred to police departments across the country via the 1033 program. "A weapon of war is in essence being justified as an everyday weapon that can be there to potentially use on children," Criollo says.
Students and teachers from LAUSD are similarly concerned about the district potentially still having these weapons. Laura Aguilar, a high school senior from South Central, argues that guns like the M-16 have historically been used against people of color, starting in Vietnam. "[They're] meant for destruction. I don't want [their presence] to be the destruction of my community." Aguilar is a youth leader with Fight for the Soul of the Cities, which organized a rally last week demanding that President Obama end the 1033 program altogether.
Michael Davis, a fellow senior and youth leader, warns against seeing Obama's restrictions as a victory. "It becomes a conversation of what weapons are going to be used, instead of no weapons being used," says Davis. "I can't call it a victory because it's still guns, and police, and weapons in my community."
High school social studies teacher Mark Gomez agrees: "It's hard to fully get behind and support these kinds of announcements and pretend like the community organizing work that you're doing is finished when you have a country that continues to outspend half the globe in military spending, and simultaneously under-fund public education," he says. Gomez says he's witnessed the impact weaponized school police have on his students, many of whom are already navigating trauma and socio-economic challenges. "It's hard for students to believe that their education institutions want, encourage, and are trying to develop them as civic agents . . . when, on the other side, you're talking to a highly militarized entity."
For young people like Aguilar and Davis, the safety of students depends on the complete demilitarization of the police, not just a scaled-back weapons list. "The way we see it is: one bullet, one gun, one life that we are not willing to lose," says Davis.
"These are weapons that are used in war," says Aguilar. "And the warfare now is towards people of color."