After an 18-month public shaming campaign, a group of high school students in Los Angeles pressured the school district to get rid of 61 M16 assault rifles, three grenade launchers, and a mine-resistant protective vehicle.
Armed with posters, petitions, and their phones, the students convinced the Los Angeles Unified School District to return military-grade weapons the district acquired through the Department of Defense’s controversial “1033 Program,” which provides surplus military equipment to local law enforcement departments. Organizers believe this is the first time that community members have forced a police department to return all military-grade weapons.
“I got involved because schools aren’t war zones. They’re not battlefields. Those are children in the school,” said Monique Jones, an 11th-grade student at Augustus F. Hawkins High School in South L.A.
Jones, 16, made presentations about the 1033 program to her classmates and encouraged them to call their school board members. The junior in high school said she has attended several school board meeting, but has never approached the microphone to speak because she’s shy. Instead, she said she talked to her schoolmates about the campaign. “Small presentations to let students know to come out. Not big PowerPoints,” Jones told Fusion in a telephone interview.
The students come from schools like Augustus Hawkins High in South L.A. and Roosevelt High School in East L.A., where the vast majority of students come from Latino working-class families. “It’s mostly Latino students and a little bit of African American students,” said Jones.
Students like Jones in Los Angeles public schools have grown up with at least one police officer on campus since 6th grade. Jones said she already had concerns about the number of police personnel in the schools, and the military equipment inventory raised even more questions for her: “We can’t join the military at this age, so why would the district accept these military grade weapons in the school system?”
At one school board convening in July 2015, a group of students chanted for 20 minutes at the start of a meeting. The students yelled “students ain't bullet proof,” with some of them wearing bulletproof vests. The students shared memes alleging the "LAUSD has military weapons it plans to use on students and their communities." They used the hashtag #EndWarOnYouth whenever they shared content online.
The LAUSD Police Chief has said his department found the need for additional weapons to become better prepared for mass shootings. The chief cited the 1999 Columbine High School shooting and the Virginia Tech shooting as evidence schools need to prepare for mass shootings.
“It was the young people that felt like this was a do or die issue, and they took it very seriously,” said Ashley Franklin, an organizer with The Labor Community Strategy Center, a community group that works with students on policing in and around schools.
In a letter addressed to The Labor Community Center, LAUSD’s police chief said his department reinforces the district's commitment of educating students and provide a safe learning environment.
“It’s exciting that young people who don’t even have their high school diplomas were successful and got the school district to admit they had the weapons, return those weapons and after that apologize,” said Franklin, who worked with the students to organize the campaign.
“This is a big credit to the young people themselves,” Franklin said.
There are 22 school districts in the country that participated in the 1033 program, and organizers believe the LAUSD is the first district in the nation to return all the weapons back to the federal government. Texas tops the list of states with the most districts participating in the 1033 program with ten school police departments receiving military equipment, according to the civil-rights groups Texas Appleseed and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. (Districts in California, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, and Utah also enrolled in 1033 program.)
The Obama administration issued an executive order in May 2015 banning kindergarten to 12th-grade school police departments from enrolling in the 1033 program. But advocates say the executive order didn’t go far enough because it did not include clear guidance on equipment already in the hands of school district police departments.
“The executive order is extremely weak and limited,” said Manuel Criollo, director of organizing at The Labor/Community Strategy Center.
The executive order only banned school police departments from participating in the 1033 program, but very few school districts have their own police departments. Most schools in the U.S. are policed by local authorities.
The Los Angeles School Police Department is the largest independent school police department in the United States, with over 410 sworn police officers and 101 non-sworn school safety officers. The district police department is the 14th largest in California with an estimated yearly cost of $59 million.
The district announced in February this year that it had returned all military equipment that it received through the Department of Defense 1033 program, but that wasn’t enough for the students. The students didn’t declare victory until June, after they received an itemized list with proof LAUSD officials returned equipment.
“Currently, the [L.A. School Police Department] does NOT maintain any military-donated vehicles, munitions, clothing, or other items that would be displayed or construed as a “military-like” presence in or around the school community,” chief of police Steven Zipperman wrote in a letter to The Labor/Community Strategy Center obtained by Fusion.
Attached to the letter was itemized proof the district had returned the weapons, complete with equipment transfer forms and FedEx tracking numbers to prove shipments were received.
“I was fighting for black and Latino youth,” said Jones, the Junior at Augustus F. Hawkins High School.
“If it wasn’t for the voices of my peers and I those weapons would still be in the hands of the district and what would that look like in the future?”