The Pentagon has a program that provides surplus military equipment to local police departments, and now it is providing heavy armor and weapons to school districts. A group of civil rights organizations want this to end — fast.
The coalition is being represented by the NAACP Defense Fund and Texas Appleseed, an organization that supports social justice. This week, a letter was sent to the director of the Pentagon’s Defense Logistic Agency (DLA) strongly requesting that the department stop providing school districts with military equipment under the 1033 program. The program has been in the headlines is the intense scrutiny following the police practices last month in Ferguson, Missouri.
The group gathered data showing that 22 school districts in eight states are involved in the surplus transfer program. Ten of those districts are in Texas. In the letter to the DLA, the groups wrote that a show of military weaponry and equipment, in the wake of a police shooting of an unarmed teenager, only exacerbates the existing tensions, according to Russell Berman, writing for The Wire.
The Wire received data from Texas Appleseed through the Texas Department of Public Safety which revealed the gear sent to Texas school districts included assault rifles, trucks, night-vision equipment, and other armor valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The 1033 program was enacted by Congress to make use of excess military equipment and help police fight against drug gangs. That was 20 years ago, but the demand grew again after terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. There was also a spike in requests after the US withdrew forces from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The transfers are also linked to the protection some districts see as necessary after the school mass shootings, particularly the Sandy Hook massacre. The groups say there is no research which shows evidence “that these types of weapons would be effective in combating or responding to these situations”. The White House and Congress are now reassessing the 1033 program.
The letter sent to the Pentagon was signed by 22 state and national organizations, including the Education Law Center, the Legal Aid Justice Center, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and asked for an accounting of school districts involved, types of equipment delivered, and its intended use, says Morgan Smith, reporting for The Texas Tribune.
“Military-grade weapons have no place on our public school campuses,” Deborah Fowler, the deputy director of Texas Appleseed, said in a statement accompanying the letter. “We have already seen the way that much more common weapons – like tasers and pepper spray — can be misused in school settings, and know that excessive use of force in schools is often targeted at young people of color and students with disabilities. We’re simply calling for a return to common sense when it comes to the way our schools are kept safe.”
Texas is not alone in its use of military equipment for public school districts. Some California districts have quite an arsenal, as well. Matt Ferner, reports in the Huffington Post, through a recent Freedom of Information Act request it was found that several school police departments have received military-grade equipment. After the militarized response in Ferguson, 51% of Americans were found to believe that military weapons for law enforcement are unnecessary.
In an article by Scott Noll for KHOU-TV Houston, Deborah Fowler makes another statement concerning the addition of military equipment to school districts.
“The best way to prevent any kind of violence in schools, including school shootings, is to create safe climates where students feel that they trust police and can have a rapport with them,” said Deborah Fowler, Deputy Director of Texas Appleseed. “Certainly, what we saw post-Ferguson was that when you see this kind of intense militarization of police, it tends to instead create a sense of alienation between police and the community that they’re trying to protect.”
And in San Diego, the school district has acquired a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP). Bill Chappell of NPR, reports the value of the vehicle is $733,000, but the school district got it free from the US Department of Defense’s Excess Property Program. San Diego Unified School District Police Chief Ruben Littlejohn says that it is not a tank, and that it would be used to store medical supplies, trauma kits, and will be used more like an ambulance.