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Exclusive: Loaded gun found at school during random wanding search; charters want practice ended

Mike Szymanski | June 6, 2016

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handgun pictureWhile community leaders and independent charter schools are calling for an end to random student searches and metal detector wanding at LA Unified, LA School Report has learned that a routine random search at a high school in the district recently yielded a loaded gun.

A source close to the search said that the student who brought the weapon to the South LA high school was “feeling unsafe” while walking to school.

LA Unified officials didn’t confirm the specific incident, but Superintendent Michelle King issued a statement Monday saying: “Despite our best efforts, our campuses are sometimes faced with instances of violence, including the use of weapons. To help safeguard our students and staff, the district requires random screenings using portable metal detectors at our secondary schools. Administrative leaders and campus aides conduct these non-invasive screenings in a private, respectful manner in order to minimize the impact on the student and the rest of the campus. These screenings serve as a deterrent so that we may continue to focus on educating our students in a productive and safe learning environment.”

The random wanding issue has erupted now that more than three dozen community organizations — including traditional rivals such as UTLA and independent charter school organizations — have called for an end to random wanding and metal detector searches of students and backpacks at all LA Unified schools. It’s been a mandatory rule since 2005 that all secondary schools (6th to 12th grades) have random searches every day, then letters are sent home to the parents to say that their child was randomly selected for a search. The policy includes traditional schools, co-located charter schools and independent charter schools not on district property.

Because a few independent charter schools have recently refused to do the mandatory safety checks required by the school police, a letter has been sent to school board President Steve Zimmer as well as all the other school board members and Superintendent King.

The signatories include City Charter Schools and charter school agencies such as Alliance, Aspire, Green Dot, KIPP, Magnolia, Camino Nuevo, Endeavor, Citizens of the World, Resolute and STEM Prep. Also signed on are the ACLU, the Youth Justice Coalition, Students Matter, Teach for America, Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and the Watts/Century Latino Organization.

SteveZimmer5“We have a large group of diverse people and organizations signing this letter, so I think we should be heard loud and clear, we want this to stop immediately,” said Pastor Mike Cummings of We Care Outreach Ministries. “I don’t think students should be wanded, it feels like suppression, and we have to stop our kids from being suppressed.”

A former gang member turned Pentecostal pastor, Cummings said, “Students should not have a bad taste in their mouth about law enforcement. We need these youth to want to go into police work or join the fire department, but if they are searched for no reason and are suspected for no reason, then interferes with their self respect and it interferes with their learning.” Cummings who is known for his work with Safe Passages, a district program involving police agencies to provide safe routes to schools in potentially dangerous neighborhoods.

In 2014 to 2015, a total of 840 weapons were collected in the district at schools found by random searches. An audit report of random searches released two years ago showed that 38 percent of a random 29 schools did not have the proper signage notifying students that everyone is subject to a search. Also, 38 percent of the schools didn’t haven enough wands on hand, and 10 percent didn’t do the searches on a daily basis.

The conclusion of the report was that the School Operations Division should more closely monitor schools and “take corrective actions as needed in order to ensure 100% compliance.”

Zimmer told LA School Report, “I am very open to a conversation on how to do things better,” although he added he has not set up a meeting with Cummings or any of the signatories to the letter. Zimmer said he has analyzed the random search situation through the lens of parents, counselors, teachers and administrators and has talked to people at many school sites about the issue.

“What I’ve found is that the vast majority of parents want safety for their children, and that is more important than civil liberties to them at this moment in time,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer’s sentiment is echoed by fellow board member Monica Ratliff, who said she attended a meeting last week with parents at Sylmar High School, the site of a recent schoolyard brawl that made national news.

“After the meeting a parent came up to me saying she supports the wanding and she said students shouldn’t have anything in their backpacks that they shouldn’t have,” Ratliff said. “I thanked her for her comment because it was unsolicited and it was valuable to hear.”

At another meeting with King, Ratliff said she was surprised to hear students also supporting the random wanding at schools. “We asked the students, ‘What would make you feel safer at school’ and one student said, ‘metal detectors,’” Ratliff said. The student was afraid of being stabbed or knifed, and the students were fully supportive of the random searching process, she said.

“I think it’s a smart policy and it keeps kids safer,” Ratliff said.

But 17-year-old Jesus Martinez, who is graduating from Ánimo Watts College Preparatory Academy, said the random searching makes him feel less of a person.

“It takes into question who you are as a person, you question yourself and your personality and it shouldn’t really be done,” said Martinez, who will be the first in his family to go to college, studying global art and sociology at UC Merced. “It is a bad idea because it targets people, enforces stereotypes and isn’t very fair.”

Martinez said he has seen schoolmates carrying things they shouldn’t, like drugs, but has never seen a weapon on campus. “School should be a second home for children, and even if what they have in their backpacks is all legal, there may be things in there that are personal.”

Cristina de Jesus, president and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools California, said school safety is a top priority for her schools, but the random search policy is in direct contrast to their school philosophies and they will not do them. The issue cropped up after a principal at Green Dot’s Ánimo Jackie Robinson High School received a box of metal detector wands with a reminder to conduct the search every day.

“What we’re calling for is some collaborative conversation and revision of the policy,” de Jesus said. “It’s not safety vs. not safety, and there is a way to have safety while still maintaining civil liberties and structure discipline with dignity and inspiration.”

Green Dot’s policy allows for random searches in emergency situations, but they do not want to do them every day.

“For UTLA and charter schools to come together on this shows how this is of widespread concern,” de Jesus said. “It does in fact criminalize students and that’s problematic. It sends a message we think you’re up to no good.”

A parent at Ánimo Phillis Wheatley Charter Middle School near Gardena said she is worried that her son may start acting up because he’s being suspected of something for no cause. Keisha Mitchell, who is also a member of United Parents, a statewide nonprofit group of parents advocating for public schools, said that she doesn’t want her 13-year-old son subjected to the searches.

“It’s a terrible idea, it’s just not fair,” Mitchell said. “In some cases wanding is needed if the school faculty has a reason or suspects a student with probable cause to ensure safety. I don’t think it should apply to schools that don’t have a problem.”

Mitchell enrolled her son in a charter school after attending one in Tucson, Ariz., and he was already taken aback by the security guards and locked gates at the front entrance.

“He is a young 13 and he would feel violated by these random searches,” Mitchell said. “He really is a kid, I don’t want to strip him of that.”

Mitchell said she worries that her good student may be distracted by such searches and “the policing may affect him negatively in what should be a safe haven for learning and building of future citizens of our community.”

Meanwhile, the district has not contacted any of the signatories of the letter about the wanding issue since it was sent May 25. De Jesus said she hopes that some discussion will occur before the school board’s next meeting on June 14.

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