Why are school police forces assembling military arsenals?

Can you think of a legitimate reason for schools systems needing tanks in San Diego Unified, grenade launchers in Los Angeles Unified, or machine guns in Compton? Has your district made similar investments?



I’ve started writing this post at least the three times.  Once in reaction to the police shooting in Ferguson of an unarmed teen who was to start college classes in a matter of days, no easy feat for a African American male growing up in America. Bill Ferriter wrote poignantly about the factors stacked against students like Michael Brown and how that context may manifest in the classroom. Val Brown followed-up with a very personal piece addressing racial bias when it comes to anger and black male students.

I tried a second time when I learned that the Compton Unified School district would be arming their school police officers with AR-15 assault rifles, the same rifles that are banned in the state of California because they are appropriately deemed weapons of war rather than ‘sport,’ as the National Rifle Association would have us believe. In light of the disconcerting images of militarized police in Ferguson, I worried about the message students were receiving from highly-armed security officers on campus.

Not to be outdone, Los Angeles Unified invested in grenade launchers, which were euphemistically referred to as ‘ammunition launchers’ by the chief of the district’s police force. (UPDATE: The district has opted to return the grenade/ammunition launchers).

My third attempt came when it was reported that San Diego Unified purchased a Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected (MRAP) assault vehicle for the rock bottom price of $5,000 in shipping costs. I have yet to fathom when that will come in handy. Why an MRAP rather than a converted school bus? I tried laughing at the absurdity of that vehicle parked in a district lot somewhere, but I was too shocked to even register that response.

Which leads me to the clincher: Renee Moore’s provocative piece reminding adults what we owe to the next generation:

It is our responsibility to demand that all our children have in their own neighborhoods access to quality, public education that respects their humanity, challenges their intellect, and develops their character.

There’s simply something about an ‘Education that respects [children’s] humanity’ that doesn’t quite align with the arsenals that school police are assembling.

In no way am I discounting the monumental importance of school police forces and their mission to protect teachers and students. What concerns me is the message that is sent to students when the tools used to achieve that mission are the same ones being used fight wars abroad and suppress public demonstrations at home. What concerns me is that most of these purchases were not brought before the school board, where the public likely would have taken notice before the equipment showed up on campuses.

I may be overreacting, but can you think of a legitimate reason for schools systems needing tanks in San Diego, grenade launchers in Los Angeles, or machine guns in Compton? Has your district made similar investments?


Photo credit: StArHaCkTCC BY-NC-ND

Photo credit: 2nd Infantry Division, CC BY-NC-ND

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  • jozettemartinez


    I am with you 100%. When schools start looking more like prisons we are moving in the wrong direction.

  • Kim Farris-Berg

    Struck a chord

    Kris, There are two reasons this post struck a chord with me.

    The first is that, at my kids’ school right now, there are some new drop off and pick up policies that are partially an attempt to improve safety. “What are the safety issues?” some parents asked. The examples of saftey concerns cited by administrators all had to do with intruders from the outside. Yet many school shootings happen from the inside–from people who are already in the community. A key means of preventing those tragedies is to foster a community were people trust one another and provide information needed to prevent crimes before they happen.

    Which leads me to the second reason. Back in 2009, I worked with some students in Milwaukee to address an issue that was important to them. They started off saying, “We want to get rid of the police in our schools.” But after gathering evidence from students throoughout the campus they realized that many students believed the school resources officers (SROs) made the community safer. So they decided to instead focus on how to improve SRO’s effectiveness. 

    Ultimately they determinied that for the SRO program to meet its goal of improving the perception of police among the young community, police would need to take the first step in building trustworthy relationships with students (and provided a list of ways to do that). According to students, these relationships had been undermined by teachers and administrators who would call out the SROs to “arrest” students for being loud or tardy. I’d like to say that this was just students’ perception, but there were key incidents that occurred throughout the process that made clear it was true. 

    The students set a meeting with the SROs who agreed 100% with the students’ diagnosis and loved their ideas. They added that without trusting relationships they could not get the information they needed to keep the campus safe. Together, the students and SROs formed a plan for how to communicate with students about the purpose of SROs and the boundaries (so students would know that being arrested for being too loud was, quite simply, not something to fear).

    I’m not sure what is happening today, but what an illustration of a different way to spend time and resources than building up an arsenal.

    • KristofferKohl

      Important points about the underlying motivation


      Thank you for raising two critical points that this issue is bringing to the forefront: 

      • What are the underlying motivations for these decisions? 
      • How can communities be engaged to develop alternative solutions before decisions are made? 

      The example from Milwaukee is the perfect proof point for what community dialogue could produce if concerns are raised for discussion rather than simply decided upon by a small group of well-intentioned leaders. Some ‘root-cause analysis’ (somewhat infamous for anyone who has been part of a school improvement team) regarding motivation would likely reveal issues that run much deeper than school safety. Rather than treating the symptom, we would be well-served to treat the actual illnesses that lead folks to react so forcefully. 

      While it is encouraging that so many districts are reversing their decisions following public outcry, it would be much more comforting to see some conversations that get to the deeper issues at hand. 

      Here’s hoping!


  • BillIvey

    Nothing to fear but…

    … oh, you know!

    But really, doesn’t fear drive all, or at least most of this? And intriguingly, if I envision my school (independent boarding/day for girls, grades 7-12) buying any of this equipment, I think it would be our death knell – because the fear it would inspire in our parents would lead them to pull their kids from the school before the ink was dry on the purchase order. That vision makes a statement.

    If fear of a tiny percentage of our students (and/or, I suppose, other citizens) is driving this wildly disproportionate response, then shame on us. If that fear has roots in racism (as, I noticed, many opponents of these initatives – um – fear), then double shame on us. I get the desire to protect and be safe. I really do. But there has to come a time when we look hard and with unflinching honesty at our motives and face up to whether we are actively working toward the world we desire or merely running from the world we…

    … fear.

    No matter what the cost to our kids (and for that matter ourselves) through our disrespect of their humanity.

    • KristofferKohl

      Couldn’t agree more…


      Thank you for calling out what I was too tentative to write — that much of this response is driven by latent racism. In reading your reply, I was reminded of The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, et al). Fear of the wrong things plays such a disproportionate role in what gets a response (eg: school shootings) relative to what deserves a response but is too often neglected (eg: child poverty). 

      The silver lining I am finding is that as communities learn about these investments, they are outraged to the point of action. LA Unified has returned some of its weapons, and San Diego is returning the tank. What would have been more productive from the outset is notifying communities that the districts were interested in these purchases, which would have started the dialogue from a better place than where it is now. 

      Always appreciate you pushing my thinking, 


  • KrisGiere

    SD Update

    It seems that San Diego Unified has decided to return the MRAP vehicle to the military.  That is two who’ve reversed course in their purchases now, but none that have confronted the ideology that made the original purchases seem like a good idea to begin with.

    Is it just bad PR or a sign people are coming to their senses?

  • KristofferKohl

    The ideology is more troublesome


    I agreee, the ideology that led to the purchases is more worrisome than the actual weapons themselves (which is saying A LOT!).

    If school safety is getting to the point that officials positioned to make purchase decisions didn’t deem these acquisitions worthy of community debate, then there is a much bigger problem at hand — negligence. 

    We can’t arm school police in this manner without engaging students and parents in a dialogue about potential alternatives. Heck, we shouldn’t be arming anyone in a school with pepper spray without consideration of how an environment for learning has become so threatening. 

    Also appreciate the spelling of your name — thought I was the only one 😉 

    Thanks for pushing the conversation to a higher level,