Student voices on random weapons searches at LAUSD schools — feeling safe, or a waste of time
Mike Szymanski | November 1, 2017
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LA Unified’s daily random weapons searches get mixed reviews from the students themselves.
Saisha Smith from Dorsey High says it’s a violation of her civil rights that “wastes valuable teaching time when all they’re doing is taking away my hand sanitizer and cough drops.”
But student school board member Benjamin Holtzman from Hamilton High says, “If a student next to me has a weapon, I want to know. I don’t care if random searches only find less than 2 percent of the weapons on campus — that’s 2 percent that is not there anymore.”
The debate among students about whether to continue random metal detector searches at LA Unified is as diverse as it is among the adults who are considering amending or changing the mandatory policy. Fueled by civil rights groups such as Black Lives Matters, Youth Justice Coalition, and the ACLU, student rights groups under the umbrella of #StudentsNotSuspects have protested the policy as demeaning and frightening for students, while some students consider it important to feel safe at school.
Last year, the Division of District Operations surveyed 6,083 students and didn’t find an overwhelming endorsement of the searches. About 47 percent of students agreed that the searches “make me feel safe” while 15 percent disagreed, and the rest were neutral. About 46 percent said they thought random searches should be conducted at their school, while 16 percent disagreed, and 37 percent remained neutral.
The school district held a public information session last week that encouraged all sides to present their arguments about the policy, and with the school board’s emphasis on a “Kids First” agenda, the voice of the students was front and center.
Keanna Byrd, a student from Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet, told the school board that it’s dangerous to walk to school, so she hides her pepper spray off campus — because she knows it would be confiscated — and then retrieves it to walk home.
“Wanding is necessary to feel safe at school,” said Byrd, who noted that her school gives flash drives as a reward to students who get searched. “I understand it, and I think the process is equitable and random. You have to consider what’s at stake, the lives of kids like me.”
Grace Hamilton from Marshall High was one of the 20 students speaking at the five-hour information session. As a member of Students Deserve, she said she has handed out 4,000 buttons to students against the policy at 27 schools. “The searches are racially charged and fear-based, and there is no evidence that it keeps violence out of our schools, but there is evidence it creates mistrust between students and administrators,” she said.
School board member Kelly Gonez, who discovered in the report that her district had the third-highest number of weapons found on campuses last year, said, “It’s clear that these students aren’t raising the issue because they are inconvenienced by wanding, or they prefer not to go through it, but that it’s impacting learning. It is important that we validate those voices.”
A team demonstrated the search procedure from Washington Prep High, a school so noted for gang violence that a TV movie was made about it starring Denzel Washington as George McKenna, the school’s then-principal who is now on the school board.
Assistant Principal Annette Harrison-Owens, a senior student named Miracle, and the school’s dean, H.E. Causey, showed how they would come into a classroom and pull out every third or every fifth student to search them in an empty room or in the hallway.
Miracle’s purse was opened and searched and then she spread her arms out and was wanded.
“I value my safety and I don’t think it’s a violation, but I was nervous doing it in front of everyone,” Miracle said. “I think most of my friends think wanding is very beneficial and know you’re not in trouble if you have to be searched. They are very respectful and not rude.”
Causey said the process takes no more than eight minutes and administrators search students of their same gender.
“Students don’t think of it as punitive” and are rewarded with something from the student store, Harrison-Owens said.
At Verdugo Hills High in the east San Fernando Valley, the principal has conducted daily searches for the past 16 years. Verdugo had two incidents of threats of violence in the past — one through social media and one through social circles — and although the threats weren’t stopped by the random searches, the staff said the daily searches allowed students to feel safe in reporting the incidents.
Amir Whitaker, a researcher from the UCLA Civil Rights Project, said that the estimated 30,000 mandatory random searches that he studied at LA Unified between 2013 and 2015 cost 7,000 hours of class time and $710,000 of salaries by administrators and teachers. His study showed that students complained of their lockers being damaged and their personal items thrown on the ground.
“This is just wasted instructional time with no real results,” Whitaker said.
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