At a quiet July school board meeting, Compton school police chief William Wu matter-of-factly explained that his officers would need AR-15 semiautomatic rifles to adequately protect students and staff from a heavily armed shooter if such a nightmare unfolded on a campus.
With little fanfare or feedback from parents, the board unanimously approved the chief's request to allow the rifles on campus. Little more was said until days before school started when news of the policy sparked a torrent of criticism from parents who are worried about having high-powered guns on campus and say the policy would contribute to Compton's inaccurate reputation as a dangerous, gang-infested city.
Despite the local outrage, though, the board's decision to allow semiautomatic rifles on campus isn't unusual in the wake of high-profile shootings nationwide. In California, at least half a dozen school districts allow campus officers to carry high-powered rifles. School officials argue the guns are needed to prevent potential tragedies. Critics in Compton, though, say that the increased firepower will add fuel to an already volatile relationship between school police and students.
"Compton schools are not located in Beirut, Gaza or Kabul. They are located in the heart of a hard-working, proud community in Los Angeles County," said Compton NAACP President Paulette Simpson-Gipson. "We won't be satisfied until this decision is abrogated."
At the July meeting, Wu spoke about a host of mass shootings where officers were outgunned: University of Texas at Austin in 1966; the North Hollywood shootout in 1997; Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999; Virginia Tech in 2007; and the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
With only department-issued side arms, Compton school officers would be at a disadvantage in such a situation, he said.
Rifles are more accurate and can use armor-piercing ammunition, Wu explained to the board, giving officers a better chance to stop a gunman.
Before the vote, board member Mae Thomas asked whether any meetings were held to discuss the rifles with parents.
"No, there was not," Supt. Darin Brawley said.
"They should know about this — that they will have rifles," Thomas said, "because it's going to get out anyway."
Thomas has since said she would like the board to rescind its vote.
Currently, no Compton school officers carry the rifles. Those who pass an internal screening process can buy them and carry the guns on duty. Under the board-approved policy, the rifles are to remain locked in the officer's vehicle unless needed.
Compton Unified declined requests for interviews with Brawley and Wu. In a statement, Wu said the department is dedicated to protecting students and staff.
"Our objective is quite simple — we want to save lives," the statement said.
The types of rifles Compton officers plan to use are not uncommon among school police departments, which have increased their presence and force, particularly after the 2012 massacre in Newtown, Conn., in which a gunman killed 26 people — 20 of them children — at an elementary school. The shooting spurred debate nationwide over whether armed school guards could prevent mass shootings.
In Los Angeles, school police officers are issued "patrol rifles" on an as-needed basis, the district said in a statement. San Diego Unified School District police officers are allowed to purchase AR-15 rifles and store them in their patrol cars.
Last year, Fontana Unified School District drew criticism when it outfitted officers with semiautomatic rifles. The district purchased 14 Colt military-style rifles for about $1,000 each and the guns are kept in safes or patrol cars.
Officers in the Fontana district have removed the weapons from the safes or their patrol cars on two occasions, both after reports of an armed man on campus, said school police chief Scott Mesa. Both incidents were false alarms.
"We didn't brandish them or point them at anyone," Mesa said. "We've never shot them — only at the range."
The public must trust officers to protect them and use their weapons appropriately, Mesa said.
"Nobody wants to think of these horrifying incidents happening at their schools, and people get nervous with guns on campus — I understand that," he said. "But for us, it's a tool of the trade. We're trained to use them and they're used for protection."
In Compton, though, trust in school police is tenuous.
Last year, a group of parents and students filed a federal lawsuit against the district alleging systematic abuse and racial profiling of Latinos by the school police.
In one alleged incident in front of Compton High, school officers beat, pepper sprayed and used a chokehold on a bystander who was taking video of an arrest and erased cellphone video captured by students. One family alleged that police targeted a student's father for arrest and had him deported to Mexico after he filed a complaint against an officer, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also alleges that police have used excessive force against students and parents who protest district policy, among other allegations.
The district has not commented on the lawsuit, which has yet to reach trial.
The rifles, the district contends, are solely for extreme situations such as a gunman on campus, and student safety is the top concern.
"These rifles give us greater flexibility in dealing with a person with bad intent," Wu said.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times