Calls mount to end mandatory random searches at LA schools
Mike Szymanski | December 5, 2016
While students in Los Angeles face growing anxiety over the Donald Trump presidency, there’s increasing pressure to end the school district’s random searches that go on every day at middle and high schools.
Momentum is greater than ever to end the mandatory practice at LA Unified after the election of an administration that threatens to deport undocumented students, punish sanctuary communities and continue stop-and-frisk practices.
“Our students are more scared than ever, so now is the time to end these random searches that make them feel more like criminals in this increased climate of fear,” said Vitaly, the only instructor at Central High School Mar Vista Gardens, a continuation school, and who goes by one name. “The district is doing their own form of bullying, even while they are saying that schools are sanctuaries,” he said in an interview Friday.
Vitaly has tried for more than two years to get the district to end the requirement that teachers and other staff members take students out of classrooms at random, “wanding” them with metal detectors to search for weapons or other illegal substances. The ACLU joined his battle in 2014, and the teachers union and LA charter schools called for an end to the searches half a year ago, but now fear of federal policies has heightened among students because of Trump’s rhetoric.
School board President Steve Zimmer, who recently estimated that as many as one-fourth of the 660,000 students at LA Unified are undocumented, said he remains open to a dialogue about changing the practice, but he still wants to keep students safe as the No. 1 priority. Zimmer previously told LA School Report that he conducted random searches as a teacher, and “I’m very open to the conversation about how to do things better.” Board member Monica Ratliff said parents in her district told her that they feel safer because the searches are being conducted regularly.
The momentum to change the practice is heating up. At the last school board meeting, an actor and a politician spoke against the searches, and at a committee meeting last week a dozen students and activists condemned the policy. Meanwhile, a petition started at the beginning of the school year has gathered more than 1,600 signatures, and students started a Twitter campaign: #StudentsNotSuspects.
“The district is seeing how frightened the students are right now, they need to stop contributing to that fear,” Vitaly said.
The practice of randomly selecting students every day and “wanding” them with metal detectors has been a mandatory requirement at every school with sixth- to 12th-graders since the school board passed the idea in 2005. It is also done at younger grade levels as needed. The policy requires that the schools perform the searches every day but doesn’t specify who should do it. Some schools have administrators, deans, safety personnel, school police or teachers do it regularly or on a rotating basis.
The practice originally started after gunfire killed a student by accident in 1993, six years before the Columbine school massacre.
In the district’s most recent survey, more than 800 weapons were found on campuses in the 2014-15 school year. But weapons are mostly found through more traditional means such as students turning in other students, rather than through the random searches, Vitaly noted.
“Also, the searches are ineffective according to multiple studies and a lot of recent federal data,” Vitaly said. “LAUSD is only among 4 percent of the districts in the country that still do this.”
Charter schools in LA flat-out refuse to do it. Also, the teachers union, UTLA, asked that the practice be stopped because in many cases teachers are involved in the searches and it creates friction in the educational environment.
“I do not feel comfortable going to school because while in class, school police and school staff security can randomly search us,” said Daniel Garcia, a junior at Woodrow Wilson High School also involved with the student activist group Brothers, Sons, Selves. “It shows how I’m being perceived by teachers, staff and school police. They see me as a suspect.”
Garcia was one of the speakers who gave emotional public comments at the Successful School Climate: Progressive Discipline and Safety Committee meeting last Tuesday. The students, teachers and activists spoke about how they feel threatened by the upcoming Trump administration and how the school district’s wanding policy makes things worse.
“We have a racist, Islamophobic, homophobic president-elect and as a schoolwide issue, that is very detrimental,” said Tauheedah Shakur, of the Youth Justice Coalition, said Tuesday to applause in the board room. Her younger brother currently attends Crenshaw High School, where she graduated. “Since the election, my little brother is called a terrorist and is told he’s Osama bin Laden’s son and told to go back to his country. My brother is just a black Muslim who wants to go to school in peace.”
At the last school board meeting in November, actor Lucas Neff spoke out against the random school searches after hearing about the policy from Vitaly.
“This policy agitates tensions in the school environment and when administrators are not available, teachers themselves are asked to perform these ridiculous searches in the classroom,” Neff said. “Is there anything more damaging to a teacher-student relationship? It’s disruptive. This is scary.”
While fielding autographs in the lobby of the school board auditorium from students who recognized him from the Fox sitcom “Raising Hope,” Neff explained how shocked he was to find out about the mandatory practice at LA Unified schools. He said he is an activist who has participated in civil rights marches and felt like he needed to speak up because it is time to nurture minority students, not alienate them more.
“It is frightening because those being searched are 12 times more likely to be minorities, and there are many studies that show the random searches are totally ineffective,” Neff said. “They can just decide to stop it.”
Neff was inspired by Vitaly, who teaches about 20 students with a part-time teaching assistant at a small school in Culver City. Ranging from 15 to 20 years old, his students are often there for credit recovery courses after they have been kicked out of other schools. Some are on probation, others have ankle bracelets so police can monitor where they are.
Vitaly was pushed by the district in 2012 to do the random searches, but he protested and began fighting the practice that the school board approved.
“It is ironic that in this climate of fear when the district is trying to emphasize how safe the schools are, they continue a policy of bullying by doing these degrading and dehumanizing random searches,” said Vitaly, who has taught at the district for more than 20 years. Vitaly said it takes a lot to gain the trust of his students and to get them to graduate and go on to college. “These random searches make matters worse. We are creating the violence with this policy.”
When searches began at his school, Vitaly said even the students who were not searched were upset. “Many students reported having difficulty focusing on schoolwork after the incident due to the tension it created in the classroom and their concern for the well-being of the individual students who were subjected to the searches,” he said in a 2014 letter to Michelle King, who was then deputy superintendent. The students were so distraught and unable to focus on their coursework after the search that Vitaly had to conduct a restorative circle to address the impact and emotions it raised for students in order to calm the students down and regain their attention.
Vitaly is known in the district for building trust with students and repairing conflicts as students struggle with dropping out of school and credit recovery.
Jessica Salans was another speaker at the last board meeting and is running for the Los Angeles City Council District 13 that covers Silver Lake, Los Feliz and parts of Hollywood. She called for an immediate end to the wanding.
“There are racists coming into the administration, and we need to protect our students who are the most vulnerable,” Salans said. “I’m not sure why there is this policy that is criminalizing students and making them feel subjected to these searches. I am shocked and disturbed about the situation.”
LA Unified Police Chief Steven Zipperman sits on the Successful School Climate Safety committee, and last Tuesday at the meeting he gave his first public statement since the presidential election. He said, “Right now when there’s a lot of angst and anxiety, it’s important to let you know that the school police department will be there as we’ve always been there to help our students be safe, relieve that anxiety, and you need to have a clear understanding that we’re not changing the way we’ve done business as it pertains to issues that may involve some thought process and procedural things that may happen nationally. We will continue to support all our students. We do not get involved in anything that involves the arm of the federal government as it pertains to INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) and we do not get involved with INS roundups or INS enforcement and we will remain that way.”
In a previous interview, Zipperman clarified that the searches were mandated by the school board, not the police department, and are generally not conducted by police. The chief said he has not seen an abundance of incidents at the school district yet, but he quelled the fears of the students at the committee meeting, adding, “It is our obligation, no matter what a person’s race, religion, national origins, ethnicity, sexual orientation or immigration status, we will ensure that every one of you are equally treated and we will ensure that you will remain safe and you will not be involved in anything that is hate-related or hate-motivated.”
Attorney Ruth Cusick with Public Counsel, a pro bono law firm, who also sits on the safety committee said she was concerned about the students. “Hearing from young people today, I see we need to do a full analysis on how to decriminalize students,” Cusick said. “So much of this starts with parent leadership.”
Safety committee chairperson and board member Mónica García said the school board will continue to look at data and react accordingly. She encouraged the students to continue to speak out and applauded their activism.
“The entire country shook when Trump was elected,” said Dana, a sophomore from Roosevelt High School who didn’t give her last name and is involved with the activist group Fight for the Soul of the Cities. “Some students are getting randomly searched, interrogated, humiliated and demeaned. There is already existing trauma with police and students of Boyle Heights.”
She added. “A Trump presidency is a scary proposition, and so is a school district that wants police over educational needs.”
More: This ACLU video is included in the petition to stop random searches in LA Unified.