Students protested outside Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Oct. 24 to demand an end to random searches in schools.EXPAND
Students protested outside Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Oct. 24 to demand an end to random searches in schools.
Surafel Tesfaye

Should L.A. Students Have to Submit to Random Searches?

Kalyn Johns is a 16-year-old junior at Dorsey High School. At least three times since her freshman year, the AP student says, security guards at the school have interrupted while a class of hers was in session and called her and other students into the hallway for a random search. They passed a handheld metal detector known as a wand over her backpack and pockets, and then dug through her backpack in search of contraband. 

"They don’t find what they’re looking for, like drugs or weapons or anything," she says, "so they take my personal belongings and throw them away, and I think that’s unacceptable."

Los Angeles Unified School District has required daily wand searches of students on all district secondary campuses since 2011 as a matter of school safety.

"They want to make me feel like I'm doing something wrong, like I'm not supposed to be carrying Wite-Out or something," Johns says. "They intimidate me a lot when they’re searching me. It's like I can’t be trusted at school."

She says the experience prompted her to join an emerging network of student activists in 15 district schools. L.A. Students Deserve, as the group is known, is campaigning to end the policy of random metal-detector searches.

The Los Angeles school board heard a public presentation on the policy from district officials at a meeting on Oct. 24.

L.A. Unified began conducting random metal-detector searches of students in 1993, after a 15-year-old boy, toting a .357 magnum in his backpack, fatally shot one classmate and wounded another during an early morning English class at Fairfax High School. It was the first of two students to die of gunshot wounds at a district campus that year. The policy has evolved over time; since 2011, all secondary schools must conduct daily random searches, and the district recommends they be conducted at various hours of the school day to avoid predictability.

Courts have found that random searches on school grounds are legal due to the substantial need to keep weapons off campuses and because searches are minimally intrusive. But critics say the policy, known as Administrative Searches to Ensure School Safety, is implemented in a way that discriminates against black and Latino students.

Several groups are advocating to bring an end to random metal-detector searches, including Students Not Suspects, an alliance of groups including Black Lives Matter, Public Counsel, the ACLU of Southern California and Students Deserve.

“It disproportionately targets students of color, especially black youth and Latino youth,” says Ana Mendoza, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “Even though the policy on its face is supposed to be random, that’s not how it’s implemented.”

"'Random' searches are not random," Grace Hamilton, a senior at John Marshall Senior High, wrote in an opinion piece published earlier this week at L.A. School Report. "Students at Dorsey High School, a predominantly black school, get searched more than any other school I talk with. This goes along with all the evidence that says schools with black students face more searches, more policing, more criminalization."

L.A. Unified officials said in their presentation before the board that students are selected for searches at random in an unbiased pattern. They said no student may be selected for a search based on gender, race, ethnicity or physical appearance, and that schools must maintain a logbook that documents the outcome of searches.

The officials showed the board the results of surveys taken of students and parents that showed broad support for the random search policy (78 percent of parents surveyed support it).

Amir Whitaker, a researcher with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, presented the findings of a review of school logbooks from the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. Whitaker found that weapons were recovered in only about 0.5 percent of backpack and locker searches.

Nearly 82 percent of the items recorded as contraband consisted of school supplies and markers (55.5 percent), lighters (10.9 percent), self-care and hygiene products (10 percent), food items (3.2 percent) or electronics (2.2 percent). Drugs accounted for 2.7 percent of seizures (97 percent of the drug seizures were of marijuana). Weapons accounted for 2.8 percent of random-search seizures (with no guns). The logbooks showed there were 33 knives recovered, mostly utility knives and tools.

Should L.A. Students Have to Submit to Random Searches?EXPAND
Surafel Tesfaye

The district reported that one firearm and 16 knives were confiscated with the use of a wand between the school years of 2013-14 and 2016-17. But the LAUSD numbers do not specifically say which weapons were seized in random searches.

An LAUSD spokesman told L.A. Weekly in an email that it may be premature to comment "until sorting through opinions and analysis from all stakeholders can be conducted."

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, random searches of students declined from 7 percent of all U.S. schools in 2000 to 4 percent in 2014. Four of the largest school districts in the country continue the practice: Los Angeles, Long Beach, New York and Chicago. Los Angeles is the only one of the four at which the searches are required; in the other cities the principal has the option to conduct daily random searches.

To Johns and other opponents of the policy in Los Angeles, bringing an end to "wanding" for weapons is part of a broader discussion on reprioritizing how the district spends its budget — less money to school security, she says, and more money for things like student health services and the hiring of college counselors, custodians and teachers.

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