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Debate erupts over Los Angeles schools’ directive to search students for weapons

School buses stand idle on Dec. 15 after all Los Angeles city schools were shut down in reaction to a threat. (David McNew/Getty Images)
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Dozens of Los Angeles parents, teachers, clergy and activists gathered Tuesday to call for a moratorium on daily random weapons searches in middle and high schools, arguing at a Los Angeles Unified School District Board meeting that wanding young people makes them feel like suspects and undermines the trust between students and adults that schools need to be safe.

“On a daily basis we will be planting seeds that say you are dangerous, you are a potential threat to others and you cannot be trusted,” parent Keisha Mitchell told the board.

“That searches can take up students’ learning time just seems off to me,” said her son, Jalen Stovall, an eighth-grader at Animo Phillis Wheatley Charter Middle School.

The school board said Tuesday that it was committed to listening to the community and to a comprehensive review of its policy.

The district began requiring random metal-detector searches for weapons more than two decades ago, after a gun hidden in a student’s backpack killed a 16-year-old at the city’s Fairfax High. But debate over the policy erupted this school year after Los Angeles Unified officials pressed city charter schools to comply.

Green Dot Public Schools, which runs more than a dozen charters across Los Angeles, refused to comply and worked to rally other charter schools — including some of the city’s largest and most prominent — to call for a revised approach to school safety. The charter schools were joined, in a strange-bedfellows alliance, by United Teachers Los Angeles, the city’s main teachers union, and civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which have long voiced concerns about the searches.

On May 25, the groups sent a letter to Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Michelle King outlining their objections to the policy and calling for an end to random searches, and a new policy to ensure safety inside the district’s more than 600 schools.

“You are well aware that a growing body of research is demonstrating the benefits of moving from zero-tolerance policies to ones that foster positive learning environments,” they wrote. “Our concern is that ‘random wanding’ alienates students, discourages them from attending school, creates a negative environment that undermines trust and respect, runs counter to restorative justice practices, and effectively treats children as young as 10 years old as criminal suspects.”

On Tuesday, activists who spoke to the Los Angeles school board said that the searches contribute to racial profiling in schools, echoing discrimination that young people experience in their communities in their interactions with everyone from police to bus drivers. Former school board member David Tokofsky, who also addressed the board, urged members not to forget why the district adopted random searches in 1993.

“You have to remember the origins,” he said of the accidental killing of high school student Demetrius Rice. “I was there that day.”

King, the superintendent, said Tuesday that she had asked the chief of school police and other staff to chronicle why the policy was put into place and what it has accomplished since then. She has endorsed the searches to date, calling them non-invasive, respectful — and necessary.

“These screenings serve as a deterrent so that we may continue to focus on educating our students in a productive and safe learning environment,” she said in a statement  this month.

The school system reported that more than 800 weapons were collected from district schools during the 2014-2015 school year, but did not say how officials found those weapons, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In December, the district received threats that a violent plan, involving guns and bombs in classrooms, had been set in motion. Officials took the extraordinary step of closing all schools in response; within hours, however, law enforcement officials were investigating the threat as a hoax.

Facing the same threat, schools in Los Angeles, New York take different tacks

The debate in Los Angeles comes amid a broad national debate about school safety that has been shaped in recent decades by mass shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High in 1999 and at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, driving an increase in the number of schools that use surveillance cameras and do active-shooter drills.

But the number of schools that use random metal detector checks has actually fallen, according to federal data, from 7 percent of schools in 2000 to 4 percent in 2014.

Collective Safety Letter