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Exclusive: More kids will be searched for weapons at LAUSD schools this year

Mike Szymanski | July 26, 2017

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Expect more diligent searches at schools this fall as LA Unified officials push principals to meet their daily requirement of metal detector scans of students and random searches of lockers for knives, guns, or drugs.

An internal report revealed that some schools are still not doing the mandatory searches of students that the district requires, so district officials said they will put renewed urgency on the practice — which is strongly opposed by many community groups and charter schools.

“We need to remind principals of the requirements of these policies,” said Darneika Watson, the new executive director for the Division of Operations, who will be responsible for making sure the schools comply with the random searches. “We have had a significant drop in expulsions and suspensions, and it may be in part because of what the searches are communicating, and our work with restorative justice, it may all go hand in hand.”

Protests outside an LA Unified school board meeting over the random searches.

All schools — including adult schools, affiliated charter schools, and independent charter schools that are co-located on district property — are required by the district to conduct random metal detector searches every day at different hours of the school day. The schools also have to schedule random searches of at least 10 lockers every day.

All LA Unified students in sixth-grade or above are subject to the daily searches. A hand-held wand that detects metal is used to scan the students. Scans must be performed by an adult of the same gender as the student. Signs must be posted at the schools and parents alerted of the policy.

Students may be searched if there is “reasonable cause” and are arrested if they are found to possess a gun or other dangerous weapon. Students who refuse to be searched are subject to discipline, and others who refuse the searches will be escorted off campus. (Read the full policy here.)

Metal detector searches were first approved in the district in 1993 and became mandatory at every school in 2005. A more detailed policy was issued in 2011 was signed off by then-deputy superintendent of school operations Michelle King. Now superintendent of the district, King is responsible for seeing that the searches are being conducted properly.

The district’s Office of Inspector General this year reviewed the schools’ compliance with the policy and found some modest improvements since they checked schools three years ago, but some issues still exist.

The latest report found:

  • The same percentage of schools randomly checked (10 percent) are still not conducting metal detector searches on a daily basis.
  • The latest inspection showed 30 percent of the schools were not doing daily locker searches. In 2014, only 7 percent of schools were not searching lockers daily.
  • One school had not conducted a single locker search for the last year.
  • One school conducted locker searches based on suspicion only.
  • One-fourth of the schools didn’t have enough wands or metal detector devices. That’s an improvement since 2014, when 38 percent didn’t have enough devices.
  • The report found that a lack of oversight resulted in infrequent searches at schools and “there was an increased risk of the presence of deadly weapons and other harmful objects on campus potentially leading to violence.”

The report recommended stronger oversight by the district. There are no fines for schools that don’t comply.

In April, the report was signed off on by Earl Perkins, the associate superintendent of district operations. Perkins said in a letter that he would like to see “100 percent compliance,” but he retired in June. The new operations director, Watson, vowed to carry out the policy.

Some charter schools have refused to follow the district’s requirements because they say the searches are demeaning to children and impede education.

“It’s not like we are going to take away money from any schools that don’t comply,” said Devora Navera Reed, chief education and litigation counsel for the district. “But if a charter school that is on one of our school sites doesn’t comply and refuses to do the searches, then that is in breach of their facilities use agreement, and it is in breach of their charter.”

That means charter schools that refuse to do their daily wanding or locker searches could be booted off LA Unified property.

“We have this policy bulletin for the safety and health of all children, and that is a huge priority for this district,” Reed said. “We know there is a robust debate on the procedures, and we will continue to communicate and educate everyone about them.”

In a rare alliance between charter management groups and the local teacher union, about a dozen charter groups and UTLA joined with the ACLU and other civic groups to sign a letter a year ago asking the district to end the searches because the practice “unfairly criminalizes students and undermines the trust built between educators, students, and the community.”

Teachers, campus aides, and administrators — rather than school police — conduct the random searches, and some teachers say that it breaks the trust that students have with their instructors.

“There is no doubt that the safety of our students must be a priority, but creating the safe and supportive environment that our students need to learn cannot happen when a student is greeted with a metal detector every morning,” said Max Arias, executive director of SEIU Local 99, whose members — including facilities staff, yard supervisors, and campus aides — are often asked to conduct the searches. “To build true safe zones at LAUSD, we must work together for solutions that build trust and support among all students, staff, and the local community. This includes strengthening programs and services that improve school climate and foster stronger relationships between parents and schools.”

A teacher at Central High School Mar Vista Gardens has collected more than 3,500 signatures through an online petition calling for an end to the searches. “The district is seeing how frightened the students are right now, they need to stop contributing to that fear,” said the instructor, who goes by a single name, Vitaly.

“The report is misguided because it doesn’t take into account safety,” said Vitaly, who said he has been working behind the scenes to get the school board to change the procedures. “The policy now only exasperates and enhances disorder. We hope it won’t be emphasized more in this upcoming school year.”

Daryl Narimatsu, administrator of district operations, said LA Unified has provided at least two metal detector wands for schools with fewer than 1,000 students, and four for those with more than 1,000. If the schools lost or broke them, they must be purchased by the schools.

“We are also going to conduct more courses for those who participate in the searches,” Narimatsu said. That will include where the schools place the signs and how to notify parents about the searches.

Board member Mónica García said in an interview that the issue of the random searches will probably come before the new school board this year.

Protests against the searches have been held at school board and committee meetings, and García has heard many of them, as she heads the Successful School Climate: Progressive Discipline and Safety Committee. García, who is also an employee with the LA County Probation Department, said she hopes the district can take a new look at the policy that has created so much dissension.

“I am in constant talks with advocates and talking to Dr. King and (school police chief) Steve Zipperman and the folks in restorative justice, and I know we can work together and not solely react to this one report,” García said. “We need to learn what is happening in the places where it working successfully, and why there are some places where they think it is an egregious policy.”

García pointed out that the district has an all-time low in suspensions and expulsions. “This is an issue of urban America, and we need to now have conversations at schools around safety and how to support young people.”

School board members in the past have said that many parents support the random searches, but a vocal group of activists have spoken up lately about a climate of fear created by the Trump administration toward immigrants and minorities which then leads to distrust of police.

“Because the searches have been a part of district policy for so long, it would probably take a conversation with all the stakeholders including the board members to change this policy,” Reed said. “So far, this has been an effective deterrent.”

“We need to find solutions of keeping drugs and weapons off campuses and still keep a creative learning environment,” García said.

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