Yep. That happened. San Diego Unified got hold of a $730,000, mine-resistant, ambush withstanding, teddy bear-carrying, armored vehicle that made the district the butt of ongoing national ridicule. Then, abruptly, it decided to return it to the federal government.

And while the district hasn’t said it was a mistake to acquire the vehicle in the first place – at the very least it was one big distraction during the opening week of the school year.

Now that the dust is settling, it’s worth reflecting on a couple key lessons we learned from the whole fiasco.

Yes, the school district has real cops.

When everything is running smoothly, the average person doesn’t think much about the fact that San Diego Unified has its own police department; one with about 45 sworn officers and 30 supporting teammates, according to the district’s website.

School police are real police – they can make arrests and issue parking citations – but most of the crime they respond to is relatively petty stuff, like vandalism and theft.

That doesn’t mean they’re not prepared for the worst.

In early 2013, school board trustee John Lee Evans questioned why school police were walking around with AR-15s. The decision to arm cops with assault rifles, much like the process for acquiring the MRAP, was made without telling the school board.

The semi-automatic weapons aren’t altogether unique. A handful of districts in California, including those in Compton, Los Angeles and Fontana, have approved similar measures.

What is unique, said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the social justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed, is that California and Texas are among the few states where school districts can commission their own police departments.

Elsewhere, school districts have memorandums of understanding with municipal or county law enforcement agencies where outside departments look after schools.

The pros of an arrangement like San Diego Unified’s is that school police know the layout of the district. That, and the fact that they’re on site, allows them to be responsive if something serious goes down.

In the event of a school shooting, supporting agencies like the SDPD could also be called in. Although, as EdSource pointed out, most of those last a matter of minutes.

The risk is that school districts in California and Texas have become among the most heavily armed, because they can take advantage of the federal government’s excess military equipment.

And that can create a rift between school districts and the surrounding community, Fowler said.

Fowler and her team in Texas have called on the Department of Defense  to provide a full account of military equipment provided to school districts, and an end to the practice all together.

“Basically, this fosters a sense of distrust,” Fowler told me. “If you want a safe school, it’s exactly the opposite of what we’re doing.”

They can get so-called 1033 equipment.

The uproar over San Diego Unified’s MRAP might have been amplified in a big way by what happened just a month earlier in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed teenager was shot and killed by a local police officer.

In the days following Michael Brown’s death, police greeted nonviolent protesters with military gear and tactics – which escalated the situation.

That kicked off a renewed conversation about the broader trend of increasingly militarized local police forces.

A big part of that is the federal government’s 1033 program, which provides surplus military equipment to local police departments, usually for free or on the cheap. As Vox pointed out, there are a couple of disturbing flaws in the program: Local police often acquire the equipment without getting any additional training on how to actually use it,  and the stuff can be given on the condition that it’s used within a year.

Nothing like providing an incentive to use heavy-duty military gear.

Decisions can be made without school board approval.

San Diego Unified’s police department got its MRAP basically because it asked for it.

Superintendent Cindy Marten ultimately approved the acquisition, and the $5,000 it cost to transport to San Diego, without consulting the school board.

Trustee Scott Barnett, who criticized the decision at a recent press conference, told me that San Diego Unified Police Chief Rueben Littlejohn applied for the vehicle on his own, and that Marten didn’t know about it until the 1033 application had been approved.

“At that point, Littlejohn called Cindy and basically said, ‘Hey, we have this vehicle. Do you want some cops to pick it up on a road trip, or should we have it delivered?’” Barnett said.

Oddly, that probably didn’t violate any rules. And that’s the broader issue.

While school board members are made aware of district expenditures, there’s nothing on the books that says they have to be informed about gifts or grants, Barnett said.

“All grants should at least be put on the board consent agenda,” Barnett said. “That doesn’t mean we have to discuss each one, but at least that way it’s done in a transparent way.”

Trustee Evans agrees. Like Barnett, he was in the dark about the MRAP, too, which was the same concern he raised last year when he learned school police had AR-15s.

But so far, Barnett said he hasn’t heard any talk about requiring the board to approve such transactions, or even that it be informed beforehand – whether it’s military equipment or educational tools that may not be in the best interest of children.

“Cindy has made some major changes on the teaching and learning side of the house,” Barnett said. “But because that’s been her primary focus, she’s done very little on the business side. And that side’s at least, as dysfunctional, overall.”

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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