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L.A. schools have given up the last of their Defense Department-issued rifles

The Los Angeles School Police Department doesn’t have any more weapons from a controversial Department of Defense program, according to a letter the school district sent to activists on Monday.

The weapon collection included grenade launchers, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle and rifles.

On Feb. 5, the department returned the last of the weapons it had obtained through a Defense Department program that stocked local police departments with surplus weapons and equipment. The district sent the letter to the Labor/Community Strategy Center, a civil rights group, and provided it to The Times.

But on Tuesday, a handful of activists commandeered an L.A. Unified school board committee meeting to demand proof. 

Returning all the weapons isn’t enough, Strategy Center Director Eric Mann said. He and the others want proof that the weapons have been returned, an apology from the district and a pledge to sever all ties with the Defense Department. They also want to see a reduction in the school police force and in existing weapons, he said in an interview.

He called the gathering a “people’s school board” meeting and took over for about half an hour before security officers nudged them outside.

Since 2014, activists at the Strategy Center have repeatedly called for the district to give the public an inventory of its weapons and to return or destroy the weapons from the Defense Department program.

L.A. Unified spokeswoman Shannon Haber would not say on short notice how many rifles had been returned. But as of 2014, the district had 61 M-16 automatic rifles, which were modified to semiautomatic.

In 2014, the district returned the grenade launchers after scrutiny following the Ferguson Police Department's use of Defense Department weapons against protesters in Missouri.

At the time, the school district released a statement justifying its decision to keep the armored vehicles and the rifles: “While we recognize, this armored vehicle is ‘military-grade,’ it is nevertheless a life-saving piece of equipment that the district would not otherwise have.” The 2014 statement also called the rifles “essential life-saving items.” 

Then-Supt. Ramón C. Cortines sent the activists a letter in 2015 saying that the L.A. Police Department was no longer participating in the Defense Department's 1033 Program, and that the district only had "'standard' civilian police-force grade” weapons and equipment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the activists spoke over the Pledge of Allegiance and demanded to be heard before other business could proceed.

Asst. Supt Earl Perkins hurried forward and motioned to camera operators, with a hand slashing across his throat, to cut the live video feed while meeting chairman and board member George McKenna tried to establish order.

“We spent a year and a half playing by their rules,” said Mann, turning toward those remaining in the boardroom.

McKenna stepped in to say that the district had already returned the weapons in question.

When it became clear that the group of demonstrators would not stand down, even if offered a chance to speak, McKenna adjourned and left the room along with other board members and senior staff.

“Put on your show,” said a frustrated McKenna, “and we’ll come back.”

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli 

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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