Why Are Police Using Military-Grade Weapons in High Schools?

Students lead a push to get school cops to return their artillery

A police officer patrols the hallways at a Virginia high school. Credit: Jahi Chikwendiu/Getty

Michael Davis' block in Los Angeles used to have huge trees on both sides of the street, so big they created a canopy. "They were beautiful," says the 17-year-old high school senior. "They covered the whole top of the block." But recently, he says, the trees were cut down. In their place, there are now bright lights and security cameras. Davis is a youth leader with the Community Rights Campaign and its student club Taking Action, which organize around the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and the criminalization of black and brown communities in Los Angeles. Having the trees on his block replaced with cameras and lights was just one sign of what Davis describes as a nationwide trend of police militarization against communities of color.

One stark example of that militarization was the revelation last month that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and school districts around the country have been receiving military-grade weapons through the federal Department of Defense's 1033 program. The program, which authorizes the transfer of excess Defense materials to federal, state and local agencies for law enforcement purposes, gained notoriety after protests in Ferguson, Missouri were met with a hyper-militarized response by the police. Compiling data from the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and a number of media reports, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed paint a disturbing picture of the program's reach into K-12 schools: At least five school districts in Texas have been outfitted with materials through the program, including one with a SWAT team; at least five districts in California, with both San Diego and Los Angeles receiving Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles; as well as a number of other states including Utah, Georgia, Florida, Kansas, Michigan and Nevada that received materials ranging from blankets and laptops to assault rifles. 

"In terms of a clear national picture of what kind of military equipment is going to K-12 schools through the 1033 program, we don't have a 100 percent transparent picture," says Janel George, education policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. That lack of transparency is one reason the Legal Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed are asking the DLA to end the 1033 program's relationship with school districts and school police departments. George also emphasizes that excessive force against students by school police is already far too common, with many school officers armed with weapons like tasers and pepper-spray. "The concern is not only the potential harm when you add in military-grade weaponry – we're talking about M16s, AR 15s and grenade launchers. It's also, how does this exacerbate existing school climates that are already tense? And how does that contribute to the criminalization of youth of color in particular?" 

The disproportionate punishment of Black and Latino students for the same behavior as their white peers is so well-documented that, earlier this year, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education expressed concern that such disparities may constitute a widespread civil rights violation. The fact that students of color, as well as students with disabilities, are so much more likely to be referred to law enforcement leads advocates to wonder: On whom are such military weapons likely to be used?

"In LA, if you depend on public schools – and given that the vast majority of students are students of color – at the moment you walk into school, your interaction with police automatically grows," says Manuel Criollo, director of organizing at the Strategy Center. "You depend on a public service, and that public service is attached to the criminal legal system. Are the police there for [the students'] safety, or are they there because they perceive them as a threat?"

For Laura Aguilar, another high school senior who co-leads Taking Action along with Davis, the weapons program is illustrative of the way students of color are treated regularly. "A mine-resistant vehicle isn't a thing that exists for our safety. It exists for our harm," she says. "Why are we providing all these resources to the wrong side of education?" Both Aguilar and Davis said that, while they were disturbed by the level of militarization of school police, they were not surprised. "A lot of us have already internalized it. It's the norm for students," said Aguilar. "We're being policed already in our communities, and now a second time in our schools."

Since the story broke, some districts have returned their weapons, or expressed their willingness to do so. For example, LAUSD returned their three grenade launchers, but opted to keep their MRAP. In Texas, the small school district of Aledo, serving 4,700 students, chose to return its M14 and M16 assault rifles. On the other hand, Edinburg, Texas "has been pretty adamant about its need for a SWAT team," says Deborah Fowler, deputy director at Texas Appleseed. "And most of the other districts listed [in Texas] have just stayed silent."

While reducing the amount of military weapons in schools is the starting point, advocates say that the problem of police violence against students is a deep-rooted one that must be addressed with cultural competency training and resources like restorative justice programs, which teach students how to work through conflict. "The data shows us that, even if there were no grenade launchers, when we just have tasers and pepper spray, we're already seeing disparities and targeting and harm to students of color and students with disabilities," says George. "Unless we address the implicit bias that fuels those discipline disparities, we will do very little in reforming discipline comprehensively."

This year, LAUSD initiated reforms to school discipline policies to limit the role of school police and emphasize school and community-based supports. It's a major policy victory that Davis says has led to important changes in how students are treated. Both Aguilar and Davis emphasize the importance of making space for young people to get to the root of their problems without police intervention. As seniors, their role is to teach the younger students how to organize, advocate, and lead. "We teach them about what it means to be in a country where overpolicing is prioritized in our education," says Aguilar. "Along with teaching students, we teach them to teach other people."