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San Diego School District's New 18-Ton Armored Vehicle Creates Stir

A rendering of the San Diego Unified School District's new MRAP shows it in white, with red ambulance markings. When district police received it, the vehicle was military tan. San Diego Unified School District hide caption

toggle caption San Diego Unified School District

A rendering of the San Diego Unified School District's new MRAP shows it in white, with red ambulance markings. When district police received it, the vehicle was military tan.

San Diego Unified School District

News that San Diego Unified School District has acquired an MRAP, or mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, is adding a new facet to discussions about the practice of giving surplus military equipment to civilian agencies.

The six-wheel Caiman MRAP has an official value of around $733,000. But the San Diego school district paid only about $5,000 to transport it, according to inewsource.org, a website that partners with NPR member station KPBS.

As inewsource's Joe Yerardi reported:

"The school district got the MRAP for free as part of the U.S. Department of Defense's Excess Property Program. The program, commonly referred to as the 1033 Program, sends unneeded military equipment like weapons and body armor to local police forces for no cost."

The program was in the news recently for its role providing law enforcement agencies with heavy armored equipment like that rolled out by police in Ferguson, Mo., to confront demonstrators.

The school district has released two renderings of what the MRAP might look like after its tan military color is painted over. In one version, it's police blue; another depicts it as more of an ambulance, white with a red cross. San Diego Unified School District hide caption

toggle caption San Diego Unified School District

The school district has released two renderings of what the MRAP might look like after its tan military color is painted over. In one version, it's police blue; another depicts it as more of an ambulance, white with a red cross.

San Diego Unified School District

A day after the San Diego story came out, school board trustee Scott Barnett called the move a "misguided priority," saying the vehicle should be leased to police agencies. Barnett suggested the funds from a long-term lease could pay for new police cars. And he said the school board hadn't been notified about the acquisition.

The day before Barnett addressed the issue, San Diego Unified School District Police Chief Ruben Littlejohn held a news conference to say the MRAP isn't a tank, which early reports had compared it to. He also said it's not a sign of new militarization in schools.

"There will be medical supplies in the vehicle. There will be teddy bears in the vehicle," Littlejohn said. "There will be trauma kits in the vehicle in the event any student is injured, and our officers are trained to give first aid and CPR.

The school district has released two renderings of what the MRAP might look like after its tan military color is painted over. In one version, it's police blue; another depicts it as more of an ambulance, white with a red cross.

From KPBS:

"The district plans to store $20,000 to $30,000 worth of medical supplies donated by partners in the medical industry in the vehicle. The MRAP arrived in April, and students at Morse High School's Auto Collision and Refinishing Program got to work painting it."

On the KPBS website, a reader questioned the message sent by the school district police with the vehicle.

"They can call it a 'love buggy,' a 'student patrol limo,' or a 'campus police fun bus' and then paint it pretty colors," a reader wrote, "but that doesn't change the fact it's a piece of military equipment that is unnecessary and sends the message that local officials are at war with students."

Today, San Diego resident Andy Hinds writes about the MRAP in an article for The Daily Beast that asks the question Why Does My Kids' Elementary School Need a Tank?

Saying that his daughters just started kindergarten in the school district, Hinds says his only complaints about their school had been that the playground needed more shade trees, and perhaps the school could do with another teacher.

"One thing I didn't realize we needed is a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP)," Hinds writes. "But our school district now has one. Ours is the Caiman model, a 6x6 behemoth that weighs in at over 15 tons and makes Humvees shrivel up with feelings of inadequacy."

Hinds goes on to say that perhaps the vehicle was irresistible to school police officials who were taken with its price – nothing – and its promise of capability.

He writes:

"Despite the very long odds that this acquisition will ever be used, and the sometimes-clumsy way the surprise rollout has been handled, I appreciate the district trying to take advantage of programs that will bring assets to our schools on the cheap."

Speaking to inewsource earlier this week, San Diego Unified School District Police Capt. Joe Florentino said he understood the reaction to the vehicle's military heritage. But he said the department wants the Caiman as a way to cope with extreme situations, such as an active shooter on campus, or a fire or earthquake.

"I can totally see people thinking 'Oh, my God. Are they going to be rolling armored vehicles into our schools and what the hell's going on?'," Florentino said. "Hopefully, we'll never have to use it for the real deal."

San Diego isn't the only place where an MRAP is being placed into an educational setting. Last autumn, Ohio State University acquired its own MRAP, complete with armored siding and bulletproof glass, as the StateImpact project reported. School officials said they'd likely use it on football game days — but that before that happened, they would remove the vehicle's gun turrets.

And in Davis, Calif., the city council has ordered the police chief to get rid of an MRAP vehicle, with Mayor Dan Wolk telling The New York Times, "This thing has a turret — it's the kind of thing that is used in Afghanistan and Iraq."

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