1. Education

Pinellas schools buy assault rifles from military surplus program

A stock image of an M16 assault rifle.
Published Sep. 18, 2014

The Pinellas County School District has purchased 28 M-16 assault rifles from the federal government and is preparing to assign them to school police officers in the coming weeks, the chief of the police unit said Wednesday.

The district is one of at least 120 education organizations, including the University of South Florida, that have received military gear as part of a Defense Department program that came under increased scrutiny in August after the heavily armed police response to tensions in Ferguson, Mo.

In a letter sent Monday to the head of the agency that administers the procurement program, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and more than 20 other organizations demanded that the federal government stop selling its surplus weapons to school police.

School police Chief Rick Stelljes said his department has wanted to purchase M-16 rifles, which he calls "long guns," for at least two years but was prohibited by cost. He said the government's program allowed him to buy each rifle for $50, significantly less than the $900 to $1,000 he would have otherwise paid.

The Pinellas School District's in-house police department provides officers at 12 schools; many of the local police agencies that contract with the remaining school campuses already assign their officers M-16s, Stelljes said.

School police officers already carry .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols with them. But Stelljes said the M-16s are better suited for emergency situations — namely, taking down a school shooter.

"If, God forbid, something's happening on a campus, you don't want to have to get up close to shoot," the chief said. "With this type of weapon, you can deal with the threat in a more tactical way, shoot from longer distances."

Stelljes declined to say where the rifles would be stored, only that they would be quickly accessible to the officers at the schools, and not the students.

Some of his officers are already familiar with M-16s, and others will receive training in the next few weeks. He said he did not know how much the training would cost.

"Our police officers are in our schools to help further the education of our students and make it safe for them to do so," Stelljes said. "This is just one more way to do it."

Bay, Palm Beach and Washington school districts are the only other ones in Florida to receive such equipment from the government this year.

Hillsborough's school police chief, John Newman, said the M-16s didn't appeal to him.

"Unless you are flat-out responding to an active shooter, that's the only use. In schools, just to have it? It's not something I would subscribe to. First of all, it's a horrible optic. And the chances of needing it are very, very small. That's just me," Newman said.

He was also concerned about the storage of the rifles: "And then you are going to leave it on campus? Where someone could break in? That's over the top. And you're talking to a six-year SWAT team guy."

No Pinellas County School Board members contacted by the Tampa Bay Times responded to phone messages seeking comment.

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he didn't know enough about the district's plans to comment on the issue but said law enforcement agencies in general need to have proper procedures to use these weapons.

"Do they have the ability to properly train and properly continue to train, and ensure proper use? That's something that's got to be addressed," he said. "This is something that's brand-new to some of these agencies."

Gualtieri also said he hopes the rifles will be securely stored away from the schools. His deputies who are equipped with rifles keep their weapons in locked compartments in their patrol cars.

USF was one of four universities in the state to receive rifles. The others were Florida International University, the University of North Florida and the University of Central Florida.

In the past five years, USF's police force received 20 M-16 assault rifles and a Humvee from the federal program in an effort to ensure officers weren't outgunned in the event of a Virginia Tech-style attack, Assistant Chief Chris Daniel said.

"It's just another tool that we have," Daniel said. "As far as being a responsible police department and being effective in this community, it's critical that we have those kinds of items."

M-16s were handed out to eight of the department's 52 sworn officers, including Daniel, and the officers who carry them first underwent special training, he said.

The remaining 12 rifles are kept in a locker at campus police headquarters.

"The rifles are not randomly distributed throughout our staff," Daniel said. "You're not going to see those officers walking around our community with the rifles slung over their shoulders."

He added: "Our officers are very discreet. They understand the shock value that goes with using them, and they manage situations and create as low a profile as possible."

But in a letter addressed to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, along with the head of the agency that runs the surplus program, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other advocacy groups, said outfitting school systems with the rifles sent the wrong message.

"Adding the presence of military-grade weapons to school climates that have become increasingly hostile due to their overreliance on police to handle routine student discipline can only exacerbate existing tensions, intensifying overly punitive atmospheres that criminalize and stigmatize students of color," the organizations wrote.

The procurement program — officially called the 1033 Program, named for a section of the National Defense Authorization Act — has been active in its current and previous forms since the 1990s. It allows the federal government to sell surplus equipment to local law enforcement agencies.

The Washington Post and news website MuckRock first obtained the reports detailing where the weapons ended up.

Times staff writers Laura C. Morel, Marlene Sokol and Michael LaForgia contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow @lisagartner.


  1. Discussing sex education on Nov. 15 in Tampa are Christian conservative Terry Kemple, university health services coordinator Linsey Grove, Planned Parenthood outreach educator Paola Ferst and Hillsborough schools physical education and health supervisor Ashlee Cappucci. Not shown: County PTA Council President Damaris Allen. MARLENE SOKOL
    Lessons seek to strengthen students’ communication skills so they can make informed decisions.
  2. FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2019, file photo, Donald Trump Jr. speaks before the arrival of President Donald Trump at a campaign rally at U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File) JOHN MINCHILLO  |  AP
    University of Florida student body president Michael Murphy received a resolution for his impeachment Tuesday. Then the state’s Republican Party started an online petition and fundraiser.
  3. Representatives from the United School Employees of Pasco, on the left, present their latest pay request to the district's bargaining team during talks on Oct. 24, 2019. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times Staff
    Officials from both sides say a deal could emerge as early as next week.
  4. A roundup of stories from around the state.
  5. Olivia Pruna, a student at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center, practices with the school's drum line last year. The Pinellas County school district is asking parents and others for suggestions on ways to improve exceptional student education in the county. DOUGLAS CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    News and notes about K-12 schools and colleges in Pinellas County.
  6. Steven Currall prepares to deliver an address during his investiture as the University of South Florida's seventh president Thursday at the Yuengling Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    Though he started the job in July, Steve Currall is officially installed as president on his 137th day in office.
  7. Gov. Ron DeSantis greets local officials at Dunedin High School on Oct. 7, 2019, part of a swing around the state to announce his plan to boost starting teacher pay in Florida to $47,500. He revealed a related teacher bonus plan on Nov. 14 in Vero Beach. MEGAN REEVES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The new plan would replace the controversial Best and Brightest model that DeSantis had called confusing.
  8. Hillsborough Community College solicited "non-binding letters of interest or intent” last month from developers interested in purchasing the Dr. Gwendolyn W. Stephenson District Administration Center on Davis Islands. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Developers have eyed the 3.7 acre waterfront parcel for years, but recent interest has prompted the college’s trustees to finally start the conversation.
  9. Cotee River Elementary student Darrell Jones waves his American flag during the school's Veterans Day program.
    The School Board is scheduled to vote on the calendar next week.
  10. Pasco eSchool principal JoAnne Glenn is surprised by school district officials who announced she is their 2020 Principal of the Year. JEFFREY SOLOCHEK  |  Times Staff
    A discussion with Pasco County Principal of the Year JoAnne Glenn.