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‘Is this a decision between politics or safety?’ — LAUSD weighs changes to its daily weapons searches

Mike Szymanski | November 1, 2017

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Parents confront George McKenna, left, as he leaves the meeting on random searches.

In its quest to decide what to do about daily weapons searches, LA Unified is preparing an expansive survey for the entire school community for December to explore whether changes are needed to one of the most rigorous search mandates of any school district in the country.

After an information session last week, acting Superintendent Vivian Ekchian said staff will immediately begin working on the survey.

“I want to ask more than who is in this room,” Ekchian said at the overflow meeting that lasted five hours. “We can explore alternatives when we have a survey that goes to all students, all parents, and the community at large.”

Students, parents, teachers, and administrators are divided over the mandatory daily searches. The school board is also divided.

Two of the seven school board members have had students shot right next to them and said they don’t want to roll back the searches. George McKenna had a student die in his arms at Washington Prep in 1980, which was documented in a TV movie. During last week’s meeting, Richard Vladovic discussed a 1986 shooting at Locke High School.

“It was during a random search and the student reached in and pulled out a .45 and we wrestled a few minutes, I’ll never forget that,” Vladovic said. “Parents all want random searches and I represent them. We may find other junk, but it’s a deterrent.”

McKenna warned against scaling back the policy, saying, “Is this a decision between politics or safety? I don’t want alternatives to safety for publicity or political reasons.”

The issue has created unusual alliances. A group of charter schools has allied with the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, to stop the practice. But the union representing principals and administrators, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, and the union representing school police overwhelmingly support the policy.

“It undermines all we do and creates a hostile environment,” said Marcus Reynolds, assistant principal at Animo Western Charter Middle School.

Independent charter schools were told by district officials that if they don’t comply with daily mandatory searches, they could lose their charter authorization and their co-locations, where charters are located on the same campuses as district schools.

“We don’t want to decrease safety, but we want to do this in a less demeaning situation,” said Angel Maldonado, president of Asociación de Maestros Unidos, a union that represents some charter teachers.

UTLA’s second vice president, Daniel Barnhart, said at the meeting that most schools in the country do not conduct searches. He said the district should instead focus on restorative justice — a method of solving issues at a school level that reduces suspensions — and the Safe Passages program, which helps secure safe routes for students through their neighborhoods.

A district survey of 504 parents showed that 78 percent say random searches make them feel safe and should continue.

But not all parents agree. “I have three children going to schools in the district and I don’t want my children to constantly feel like they are victims,” Angela James said. Vickie Vaughn of Parents United, a parent activist coalition, argued that the policy only adds to “anxiety and persecution among students, especially immigrants.”

Students protesting the wanding at schools.

The LA Unified policy requires every secondary school do random searches of lockers and backpacks every school day at least once by teachers and administrators. School police are not involved in the daily searches.

The largest school district in the nation, New York, and the third-largest school district, Chicago, do not have mandatory searches and allow individual schools to form their own policies. Those districts give more discretion to each school, LA Unified School Police Chief Steve Zipperman said.

Board president Mónica García was criticized for holding last week’s “information session” in a smaller room at district headquarters downtown rather than in the main auditorium. The 1 p.m. meeting wasn’t broadcast or taped, as are regular board meetings.

UTLA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz said, “Look at all the people waiting outside to get into this cramped room, it’s not fair. Students and teachers wanted to come, but it’s an inconvenient time.”

Board members Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez seemed open to reviewing changes in the policy.

“What I take away is it’s not about safety, it’s about the best ways to safety,” Melvoin said. “What is it that gets us to feeling more safe?”

Gonez said, “We must validate the experiences of students and teachers and have a culture of trust.”

Garfield High School teacher Erica Huerta insisted, “We must end this policy because it causes psychological damage and treats students as criminals.”

But McKenna added bluntly, “We are not here to be buddies and friends to the students. I’d rather protect our children and maybe embarrass them than have them die.”

• Read more on LAUSD’s random searches and school safety:

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Student voices on random weapons searches at LAUSD schools — feeling safe, or a waste of time

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

Calls mount to end mandatory random searches at LA schools

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