Advertisement
  1. Education

Pinellas schools returning M-16 assault rifles

A stock image of an M16 assault rifle. [iStockphoto.com]
A stock image of an M16 assault rifle. [iStockphoto.com]
Published Oct. 2, 2014

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 lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Gov. Ron DeSantis. [STEVE CANNON  |  AP]
    Florida students will read more classical literature and learn math differently, according to summary documents.
  2. Janessa Horsford, 5, says goodbye to her parents, Julytsa and Nigel Horsford, on her first day of kindergarten at Lake Magdalene Elementary School.
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  3. Miranda Harwood, a fourth-grade math teacher at Brooker Elementary School, is the Hillsborough County Teacher of the Year. [Hillsborough County Public Schools]
    The self-described “data queen” uses humor to keep her students engaged.
  4. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. [Times]
    Five girls and one boy will face charges after lunchtime fights disrupted the Pasco County campus, according to the school district.
  5. State Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, presents legislation to create a new chapter of Florida law dedicated to parents' rights when dealing with government and other agencies, during a committee meeting Jan. 23, 2020. [The Florida Channel]
    Parents have been marginalized by bureaucracy, and need to be empowered in law, sponsor Rep. Erin Grall says.
  6. Kurt Browning, left, is seeking a third term as superintendent of Pasco County schools. Addison Davis, right, is negotiating a contract to become Hillsborough County's next superintendent. [Tampa Bay Times (2016, 2020)]
    A Hillsborough search and Pasco election offer insights into the job and its importance.
  7. This time last year, Nicole Kenngatt, holding hands with student Lilly Crandall, was announced as Teacher of the Year. The award for the 2019-20 school year will be given Wednesday in a ceremony at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. [JAY NOLAN  |  Special to the Times]
    The winner for 2019-20 will be announced Wednesday during the Pinellas Education Foundation’s annual “Evening of Excellence.”
  8. An empty classroom at Bloomingdale High School in Hillsborough County. [Skip O'Rourke | Times] [SKIP O'ROURKE  |  Skip O'Rourke]
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
  9. State Rep. Wyman Duggan, a Jacksonville Republican, presents his bill to create a "do not hire" list for any school employee who has been terminated, or resigned in lieu of termination, from employment as a result of sexual misconduct with a student. [The Florida Channel]
    The measure would apply to district, charter and private schools.
  10. Students grieve at Pine Trails Park, near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., one month to the day since 17 students and staff were shot dead there, March 14, 2018. [SAUL MARTINEZ  |  New York Times]
    A roundup of stories from around the state.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement