Did Rep. Gus Bilirakis violate East Lake's weapons policy?

click to enlarge GUN AND GAMES: An unidentified child plays with an assault rifle at an August veterans fair. - Courtesy Of Veterans For Peace
Courtesy Of Veterans For Peace
GUN AND GAMES: An unidentified child plays with an assault rifle at an August veterans fair.

On Aug. 9, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis invited Pinellas County residents to East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs for a Military Day and Veterans' Resources Fair.

It was the congressman's second such event, organized to connect veterans with benefits and provide activities for the general public to learn about the armed forces. Bilirakis paid the Pinellas County School District $1,370 to lease the school facilities for the day.

Throughout the afternoon, veterans and active-duty soldiers stopped by tables manned by the Disabled American Veterans and Worknet Pinellas. Singer Tony Orlando of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Old Oak Tree" fame entertained the old folks. Children participated in rock climbing and other activities. Families perused tanks and Hummers.

But some exhibits featured military-style assault rifles, which violate the school district's weapons policy.

In photos sent to CL, elementary-school-age children are shown handling military-style assault rifles on school grounds. In addition, a vendor — Devil Dog Military Depot, a fixture at the Gunn Highway Flea Market — was also present at the event.

Pinellas County School District policy states, "Any student who possesses or exhibits a weapon at school, at any school function, or on any school-sponsored transportation, shall be suspended for 10 days and recommended for expulsion. ... Guns and weapons are not allowed in a vehicle, on a school campus or at a school activity."

Congressman Bilirakis did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Veterans for Peace spokesman Dwight Lawton released the photos, taken by peace activists protesting the fair in August. Lawton — who has called the veterans fair a "war fest" — says guns on school property are unacceptable for any reason.

"This doesn't make any sense, especially since their concern over students bringing guns and weapons to school," he said.

But it's not just peace activists that are agitated. During an October school board meeting, just after passing a revamped weapons policy, some board members expressed dismay over the photos.

"It doesn't make sense to me that it's OK to have weapons [at this event] when we have a policy that we don't [allow] weapons on school grounds," said board member Janet Clark after viewing the photos provided by Lawton.

Added board member Linda Lerner, "I did see, in the pictures, young students playing with the guns. I think you can have a military appreciation day without that going on. This needs to be looked at."

But school officials don't seem concerned.

School board attorney Jim Robinson said the district knew there would be some military items at the event. He suggested the weapons policy might need revision for events like the veterans fair.

"We're going to have to carve out some exceptions to the ban," he told CL. "We don't want to ban [the veterans fair]."

The school board is expected to look at the issue during a November meeting on the weapons policy.

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