South Africa deployed them en masse for the first time during the apartheid era. The United States left some behind in Iraq, allowing the Islamic State militants to seize them in their reign of terror. Now, the San Diego Unified School District has one too.
Yes, we're talking about armored military trucks, designed to withstand land mines and improvised exploding devices, or IEDs.
On Wednesday, news that the school district's police department recently acquired a 14-ton mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle, or an M-RAP, caused a stir in San Diego. The school district's police force, which employs real cops but is separate from the city's police department, received the truck for free from the same federal program that gave military equipment to the Ferguson, Missouri police and other cities around the country. The district spent $5,000 shipping the thing from Texas.
San Diego School Board Trustee Scott Barnett said the police didn't ask whether they could have the vehicle. If they had asked, he would have argued against it. The schools need to keep kids safe, he said, but educating students is their primary mission. He thought the M-RAP was overkill.
"If there is a hostage situation, I would hope we are not going to go barging in there with our armored vehicle," Barnett told VICE News, adding that he'd be fine if the San Diego city police had one. "We're not trained in hostage rescue, and we shouldn't be. This sends the wrong message."
San Diego Unified Police Chief Rueben Littlejohn said the truck was an extreme response to the extreme threat of killers in schools, but could also be used in earthquakes and other disasters. He noted that guns and other offensive armaments had been stripped from the vehicle. He planned to repaint the truck from its current SWAT-blue to white with a red cross so that it had a more humanitarian look.
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"After Sandy Hook there was a lot of conversation about what folks should do. What do you do for that kind of situation?" said Littlejohn, speaking to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "My team took that very seriously and came up with some creative solutions, this being one of them."
School safety experts weren't convinced.
"The Newtown Action Alliance and The Newtown Foundation are focused on preventing guns from getting into the wrong hands before the need for measures such as these vehicles arises," said Heather Smith, communications director for the two groups established after the 2012 shootings in Connecticut that killed 20 elementary schoolchildren and six teachers and staff, in a statement to VICE News.
Robert Macy, a school safety expert who is president of the International Trauma Center and a research fellow at Harvard Medical School-McLean Hospital, said the M-RAP was totally unsuited to protecting students. Observing kids' behavior, drilling students and teachers on emergency plans, and devoting personnel to security would be more useful, he said.
"A school that has someone in charge of the school safety plan and someone in charge of what you do when someone is on campus and they practice the protocols — you are going to get more mileage out of that than many armed vehicles," said Macy, speaking to VICE News. "It's not as easy as putting big heavy weaponry on campus."
The M-RAP might even be more of a liability than an asset, Macy warned.
If real, ruthless, organized terrorists — think al Qaeda rather than the Newtown shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza — attack a school, they'd do it quickly and barricade themselves inside a building before the vehicle could arrive, he said. Or, worse, they'd snatch the armored truck and use it against first responders.
"A tank is cartoonish," said Macy. "It gives the school a false sense of security."
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