Assault Rifles OK'd in Compton Schools, Renewing Debate About Police Militarization

The Compton School Board claims purchasing semiautomatic guns will protect kids. Opponents say it’s another sign of the criminalization of students of color.

(Photo: Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters)

Aug 22, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

It’s been nearly two weeks since 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer. Since then the world has watched as protesters and journalists have been met with a police force that has responded as if it were going to war. The criticism of law enforcement’s heavy-handed response to largely peaceful demonstrators has ignited a new debate about police militarization.

Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky expressed his concerns in an op-ed for Time, writing that the police presence in Ferguson “[resembled] war more than traditional police action,” and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri promised to lead a hearing in September about the growing militarization of local law enforcement. Now it appears that school police departments across the nation are becoming the next recipients of military-grade weapons.

In July, the school board in Compton, Calif., voted to approve a measure that would allow school police officers in the L.A.-adjacent city to carry AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifles on campus. Compton Unified School District Police Chief William Wu told the board his officers needed the weapons to protect against a terrorist attack or mass shooting. Wu said his main objective is to “save lives, bottom line."

According to the policy, officers approved to carry the rifles will have to purchase their own weapons, which can only be deployed “in response to situations that clearly evidence a need or potential need for superior firepower to be used against armed suspects” or in “situations where the circumstances at hand are beyond the capabilities of the standard patrol sidearms (e.g., long distances, suspects utilizing body armor, and/or high powered, high capacity weapons) should be considered.”

Community members, parents, and educators are skeptical about the school board’s decision. Compton Mayor Aja Brown issued a press release on Thursday asking the board to reconsider the decision.

“The controversy surrounding the deployment of high-powered assault weapons by Compton Unified School District police officers begs for more input from Compton community stakeholders,” Brown said in the statement. “Compton residents deserve more time for discussion and debate on the school police assault weapon deployment plan before CUSD purchases rifles and places them in officers’ hands.”

Melinda D. Anderson, a Washington, D.C.–based education writer and parent activist, takes Brown’s measured statements a step further.

“As a parent, my immediate reaction was, sweet Jesus, no! School police carrying military-grade weapons on campus is horrifying,” says Anderson, noting that Compton school police have been sued for racial profiling.

In 2013, a lawsuit filed by a group of Compton families claimed school police regularly mistreated Latino parents and students. The suit contended that the district’s school police department was even instrumental in the deportation of one father after he complained about excessive force. This alleged abuse of power is what has people on edge about the Compton School Board’s new plan.

“Introducing assault weapons on any campus is scary insane,” says Anderson. “In this case, it’s truly terrifying.”

Francisco Orozco, a recent high school graduate and founder of the Compton Democratic Club, said the move is unnecessary. “The school police has been very notorious in the community and in reality has never had to shoot anyone before,” Orozco told public radio station KPCC. “So this escalation of weapons we feel is very unnecessary.”

Compton Unified School District serves approximately 10,163 students across 17 schools. While the majority of mass shooters are white men and boys, 65 percent of Compton students are Latino, and upwards of 33 percent are black. Anderson argues the move to equip Compton’s school police with rifles speaks to the larger issue of urban schools feeling more like prisons than like educational institutions.

“It’s a byproduct of the chronic neglect of ‘urban’ schools. Schools that are disproportionately poor, black, and Latino are grossly underfunded,” Anderson says. “It’s cheaper and easier to slap on a Band-Aid than to really cure what’s wrong. Districts like Compton would rather prepare for a dubious apocalypse than address this deeply ingrained situation.”

Anderson says this method of militarizing school police forces wouldn’t fly in more affluent areas, and that it is yet another example of the criminalization of students of color, which starts as early as preschool: “The realities of over-policing that youth of color face in this country isn’t just in the streets. It’s in school hallways too. The racial disparities in school-based arrests that feed the school-to-prison pipeline bear this out.”

Parents, school police, and community members all want to keep students safe, but it’s hard to imagine how equipping officers with semiautomatic assault rifles encourages learning. It also raises a question: If military-grade guns are now deemed necessary to protect students, will grenades, mine-resistant tanks, and tear gas be next?