The semiautomatic rifles look like they belong in a war zone instead of a suburban public school, but officials in this Los Angeles-area city say the high-powered weapons now in the hands of school police could prevent a massacre.
Fontana Unified School District police purchased 14 of the Colt LE6940 rifles last fall, and they were delivered the first week of December — a week before the Connecticut school shooting. Over the holiday break, the district's 14 school police officers received 40 hours of training on the rifles. Officers check them out for each shift from a fireproof safe in the police force's main office.
Fontana isn't the first district to try this. Other Southern California districts also have rifle programs — some that have been in operation for several years. Fontana school police Chief Billy Green said he used money from fingerprinting fees to purchase the guns for $14,000 after identifying a "critical vulnerability" in his force's ability to protect students. The officers, who already wear sidearms, wouldn't be able to stop a shooter like the one in Connecticut, he said Wednesday.
"They're not walking around telling kids, 'Hurry up and get to class' with a gun around their neck," the chief said. "Parents need to know that if there was a shooter on their child's campus that was equipped with body armor or a rifle, we would be limited in our ability to stop that threat to their children."
Some parents and students, however, reacted with alarm to the news that school resource officers were being issued the rifles during their shifts. The officers split their time between 44 schools in the district and keep the rifles in a safe at their assigned school or secured in their patrol car each day before checking the weapon back in to the school police headquarters each night.
Only sergeants trained for years to use the rifles are authorized to check out the rifles from the police armory, where they are kept.
"If the wrong person gets ahold of the gun, then we have another shooter going around with a gun. What happens then?" said James Henriquez, a 16-year-old sophomore who just enrolled at Fontana High School this week after moving from Texas.
Other students said they felt disillusioned that officials would spend money on semiautomatic rifles while the district eliminated its comprehensive guidance counseling program two years ago.
"They should get guns, but not as many and not spend so much money on them," said student Elizabeth Tovar. "They should use the money to get back our counselors because a lot of us really need them."
The district saved millions by restructuring guidance services, said Superintendent Cali Olsen-Binks.
The 40,000-student district came up with the school rifle program after consulting with top school safety experts and looking at what other large districts had done, said Olsen-Binks.
Santa Ana Unified School District, in nearby Orange County, has had a rifle program for about two years that operates similarly to the one Fontana has started, said police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna.
The Los Angeles School Police Department also deploys rifles to its officers as needed, the department said in a statement. It would not say how many rifles district police have but said the weapons are kept in the department's armory and are handed out and returned daily.
"I came from a teaching background, and it's appalling to think that we'd have to have security officers — let alone armed police officers — on our campuses," Olsen-Binks said. "But the bottom line is ... everybody has anxiety over school safety right now."