ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County School District has purchased 28 M16 rifles for its internal police department, according to Law Enforcement Support Office documents.
The guns aren’t currently in use, but school police officers will begin training to use and store the weapons, school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said.
“Our hope is that our officers never have to use this equipment,” Parra said.
The rifles, which cost $499 each, give school officers access to “comparable equipment” as other law enforcement agencies strictly for “worst case scenarios,” like an active shooter on campus, Parra said. In addition to its own police department, the school district contracts with local police agencies and the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office for school resource officers and deputies to monitor more than 101,500 public school students.
The school police officers generally handle calls at elementary and fundamental schools. They also monitor two Pinellas Technical Education Colleges campuses.
“This equipment is just to prepare our officers for situations that we hope will never happen, but unfortunately we live in a society where law enforcement has to think about these things and how to best be prepared,” Parra said.
Pinellas is one of more than 26 school districts and more than 100 educational institutions in the country that have purchased surplus military equipment through the Department of Defense 1033 Program. The government program, established nearly 20 years ago, supplies discounted, decommissioned military equipment to more than 8,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.
The program recently came under criticism after the police response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., spurred debates on police militarization. Amid scrutiny from media outlets and education and civil liberties groups, some school districts have pledged to give back their military equipment.
About two dozen organizations sent a letter this week to the Pentagon and the U.S. Justice and Education departments in an attempt to stop the practice of allowing school police to purchase the weapons. The White House and Congress also plan to review the surplus program.
In Florida, Bay County schools purchased seven M16s and a .45 caliber pistol, and Palm Beach County schools bought two .45 caliber pistols.
The Colt M16 rifles mainly are used in combat zones, with a firing range of about 600 to 800 meters, according to the company website. The 5.56 mm caliber rifles can fire 700 to 950 rounds per minute.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.