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  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.

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