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Students face LAUSD board, demanding end to military weapons

Mike Szymanski | July 31, 2015

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The LA Unified board endured a long and unusual protest last night as about 50 students demanded specific actions to get military-style weapons out of the hands of district school police.

The students, some of them wearing bullet-proof vests, chanted for 20 minutes at the start of a meeting — “Back to school, no weapons” and “We want justice for our schools” — in protesting the federal 1033 Program, a federal effort that provides school districts with surplus military-grade weapons. LA Unified has been a recipient.

Board president Steve Zimmer let the chanting continue and at one point said, “Let them go on.”

The demonstration inside the board meeting followed two hours of drumming and shouting outside LA Unified headquarters, with students holding signs bearing the face of President Obama and Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

Manuel Criollo, a protest organizer from the Labor Community Strategy Center, told the board that he wanted an end to the program, which had given the district a tank, three grenade launchers and dozens of M-16s. The district returned the tank and grenade launchers last fall, but has kept the M-16s. In a June letter the Criollo’s group, Cortines said the district had ended its involvement with the program.

Brillo called for the board to be more public about the weapons and demanded that they be returned.

“It’s ironic that we have surplus weapons but we do not have surplus books,” he said.

Inside, the crowd called out to the only black school member, George McKenna, and he responded by recalling his own experiences with civil unrest while defending the need for school police to be prepared for any occasion in which student safety is at risk.

“First of all, in 50 years of going to schools from Inglewood to Compton, I have never seen such weapons,” McKenna told the crowd. “I have always seen gang members with weaponry that exceeds the police. I have held dying children shot by each other, not by police.”

He challenged, “I have not seen this school police with M-16s on school site, and neither have you. I would hate the school police to make a 911 call because they cannot stand down to an over-armed person on campus.”

In response to the crowd’s calling for more money for books and not weapons, he said, “If weaponry is given to us, we’re not paying for it, we’re not taking it away from book money.”

Then, he said, “I would rather have what we don’t need than need it when we don’t have it.”

McKenna talked about teaching at Jordan High School in 1965 when the Watts Riots broke out. “We did not have police officers,” he said. He pointed out he was against metal detectors at schools, but then saw the proliferation of violence and then changed his mind.

“I saw Tookie start the Crips right there in my neighborhood,” he said, referring to the notorious gang leader Stanley (Tookie) Williams, who was convicted for two murders and executed in 2005. “It kills me that they may not be safe in schools, but they will not shot by police.”

Board member Mónica García also addressed the students.

“I have to tell you, you are effective,” she said. “You may not get the ‘yes’ now, but you were heard, we heard you. You are right to be leaders.”

She pointed out that the school district has fewer suspensions and fewer expulsions than ever before.

“You have caused that to be true,” Garcia said. “You young people have cause that to be true, and I have the pleasure of chairing the School Safety Committee and we will take this up. We also have solution; it’s called literacy. When kids read they chose different.”

After the meeting, Criollo said he was disappointed that Zimmer didn’t take more of a stand. “Silence says a lot, and only one board member spoke in public, and they seem to be supporting the arming of their police,” he said.

Ashley Franklin, who helped organize the students, said it was a good civics lesson, even though they may be walking away disappointed. She held a debriefing with the students where they expressed feeling helpless, and talked down to, or even ignored.

“You were vocal, you were more vocal than those who have to power to be vocal, and that is a good thing,” she told the students.

Then, she added, “We are a starving army, and we are out maneuvered at this time. So, let’s go get some pizza.”

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