Thursday, June 21, 2018
Education

Pinellas schools returning M-16 assault rifles

The Pinellas County schools police department, which last month defended the purchase of 28 M-16s for its officers, is returning the assault rifles to a federal government surplus program.

School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said Wednesday the board should have known about the purchase beforehand, instead of reading about it after the fact in a Tampa Bay Times article.

Rick Stelljes, the Pinellas schools police chief, said he wanted to return the rifles after much "reflecting."

"After introspectively thinking through it, and having conversations with a whole bunch of folks — inside the system, outside the system — I decided we are a very specialized police department within a school system, and our focus is working with the students and the staff," Stelljes said Wednesday.

The chief sent superintendent Mike Grego a letter Monday recommending he return the rifles. A spokeswoman for the district, Melanie Marquez Parra, confirmed that Grego was taking Stelljes' recommendation.

Stelljes said Grego knew about and supported the purchase, but also supported his decision to return the M-16s.

In September, Stelljes defended the weapons as necessary tools in case of a school shooting; they would allow officers to shoot from around corners and from farther away than with their .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols.

Other police agencies that provide school resource officers for Pinellas campuses assign their officers M-16s, Stelljes said then.

Pinellas bought the rifles for about $50 apiece from a Defense Department program two months ago. The in-house police agency provides full-time school resource officers at 12 county schools, including Safety Harbor Middle, Palm Harbor Middle, and several alternative and special-needs centers. Other officers in the unit float between elementary schools throughout the district.

Cook said she was concerned that the rifles were purchased without the board's knowledge. She said she would not necessarily have been opposed to the purchase, but supported returning the weapons.

"We don't have to worry about if they're stored safely or any other mishaps with them. I think we'll be fine without them," she said. But, "My original concern was, how did this happen without anyone knowing about it?"

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he suspects the low cost of the military gear from the surplus program keeps the purchasing decisions out of public view. The $50 rifles would have normally cost close to $1,000.

"Fifty bucks a gun, that type of spending doesn't get vetted by the board, it doesn't allow for the vetting of the decision and the dialogue and discourse on it," Gualtieri said.

The sheriff said he thought it was "prudent" that Pinellas school police were returning the rifles, which he did not believe should be stored in the schools. "And if you don't keep them in the schools, if you're going to keep them in offices in Largo and have to leave school to go and get them, that kind of defeats the purpose and is silly," Gualtieri said.

The federal surplus program provided military gear to at least 120 educational organizations around the country, including the University of South Florida. As for school districts, Bay, Palm Beach and Washington were the only other counties in Florida to receive such equipment from the program this year.

In a letter last month to Obama administration officials and the agency that runs the surplus program, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and more than 20 other organizations demanded that the government stop selling its surplus weapons to school police. The groups said the use of military-grade weapons in schools sent the wrong message.

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner.

Comments
Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

Hernando school officials set to discuss replacement, sever ties after firing Superintendent Lori Romano

BROOKSVILLE — With dust still settling from the Hernando County School Board’s close vote to fire Superintendent Lori Romano — and days before her time as head of the district runs out — school officials and community members seem to be already movin...
Published: 06/20/18
Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

Hernando students score slightly better on state tests

BROOKSVILLE — As schools and districts across the state await their 2018 grades from the Florida Department of Education, the standardized test scores that factor into those ratings and were dropped last week show slight gains in Hernando County.The ...
Published: 06/20/18
Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

Budget analysis projects deficit, deepened by security costs, for Pasco schools in coming year

An early analysis of the Pasco County School District’s 2018-2019 budget projects a deficit of more than a million dollars, with more than half of that coming from a shortfall in funding new school safety requirements.Costs to hire and train 53 new s...
Published: 06/20/18
New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

New dorm still coming to USF St. Petersburg, but in a smaller package

ST. PETERSBURG — Originally pitched as a nine- or 10-story, 550-bed dorm for the overcrowded University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus, USF’s latest residence hall project will likely look much different by the time it’s done.For starters, it...
Published: 06/20/18
Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Carlton: From Sun Dome to Beer Stadium: Don’t let suds scare you

Am I missing something in the — pardon the expression — brouhaha over the renaming of the University of South Florida Sun Dome to the Yuengling Center? In trading a college arena’s longtime name for that of a big-name beer brewed ne...
Published: 06/20/18

Hillsborough school district will pursue two kinds of local taxes

TAMPA — Hillsborough County School District officials took an important step Tuesday toward asking the voters to pay higher taxes for schools that, they say, are not getting enough money from the state.The board voted 5-0 to submit a tax referendum r...
Published: 06/19/18
Updated: 06/20/18
STEM camp beats the summer doldrums for some Pasco students

STEM camp beats the summer doldrums for some Pasco students

DADE CITY —Just a few weeks into summer vacation, Pasco Middle School student Jade Neal, 14, was back at school, delving into a challenging STEM activity on force in motion, as the theme to Mission Impossible played in the background.The assignment? ...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Ethan Hooper steps up with a salute to teachers

Editor’s note: Ethan Hooper wrote today’s column to give Ernest Hooper Father’s Day off.In May, I graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in elementary education, and I recently secured a job as a first-grade teacher with Orang...
Published: 06/18/18
AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

AP World History course is dropping thousands of years of human events - and critics are furious

Since 2002, the AP World History course has covered thousands of years of human activity around the planet, starting 10,000 years back. But now the College Board, which owns the Advanced Placement program, wants to cut out most of that history and st...
Published: 06/16/18
School board races attract new faces

School board races attract new faces

TAMPA — When long-time Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes resigned this month from the board to run for the State House of Representatives, the decision affected more than just her seat in west Hillsborough’s District 1.It also coul...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/17/18