LA Schools Randomly Searched Students For Weapons For 26 Years. Here's Why That Practice Will End

In this file photo, L.A. School Police officers watch students lining up to pass through a security check point in the aftermath of student brawls at Thomas Jefferson High School April 21, 2005 in Los Angeles. Beyond incidents like these, random searches are routine, and critics say they make students feel "criminalized" and unfairly target minorities. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

After years of pressure from an activist coalition, Los Angeles Unified School District leaders have ended a longstanding policy of searching older students randomly and daily for weapons or drugs.

School board members voted 4-3 on Tuesday on a measure that will phase out LAUSD's current policy — sometimes called "wanding" for the handheld metal detectors used in the searches — by July 2020. In its place, the resolution calls on the district to develop a new security policy that bars any type of random student search.

It's exactly the type of change the "#StudentsNotSuspects" coalition had been urging LAUSD to make. The diverse alliance of student activists, civil libertarians, unions and other groups believes the searches have unfairly targeted black and Latino students without making the district's schools safer: the searches, one analysis has found, almost never turn up weapons.

"It feels super exciting, honestly," said recent Dorsey High School graduate Marshé Doss, who's been active in the coalition. "I'm trying not to get too worked up about it, because of course things can change. But right now, it really looks like this is happening."

DO SEARCHES DETER HARM? OR 'CRIMINALIZE' KIDS?

Officers in LAUSD's sworn police force have opposed changes to the policy, saying the random searches with metal detectors are an important deterrent against students bringing weapons to campus.

L.A. School Police Chief Steve Zipperman has said the total number of weapons officers find on campuses each year — through their own investigations, not random searches — has dropped since the policy was first enacted 26 years ago.

But school board president Mónica García said it was time to revisit the random search policy, which she characterized as increasingly out-of-step with district-wide efforts to enact more progressive disciplinary practices.

"We must listen to young people who say they feel criminalized, whether or not that's the intention of this policy," García said in an interview Thursday. "I am putting forward a conversation to create the alternative where all partners are moving forward towards a resolution."

Fellow board members Jackie Goldberg and Kelly Gonez joined with García in co-sponsoring the resolution. The board's non-voting student representative, Tyler Okeke, is also listed as a co-sponsor.

HOW DO THESE SEARCHES WORK?

LAUSD has been conducting random searches since 1993, when two students were killed in separate on-campus gun incidents at different high schools.

Under the current version of the policy, administrators at LAUSD middle- and high school campuses conduct the searches. Police officers from LAUSD's sworn force are often present, though they're barred from conducting the searches themselves.

School staff are supposed to select students using a fixed, specific pattern — for example, every fifth student who enters a classroom is searched — and conduct the searches at varied times to "avoid predictability."

Some L.A. School Police officers and administrators have said the searches aren't meant to "criminalize" students. At their best, the searches can trigger interventions that get students needed help.

But #StudentsNotSuspects coalition members suspect it doesn't always work out this way. While she attended Dorsey High, Doss said many students felt administrators were tailoring their searches to basically target students who "had a reputation or just looked suspicious."

"How is it random [if] the same student always gets chosen every time that you do a search in this classroom?" Doss said. "Why is it that this person got chosen five times out of the five times you've searched this room? That's not random."

In a district that is 90% non-white, it might seem easy to discount accusations of racial profiling, but Doss noted some schools have significant populations of white students. And in these cases in particular, coalition members fear that searches may not have been truly random, and that students of color — and black students in particular — became targets.

NOW THAT RANDOM SEARCHES ARE ENDING, WHAT WILL REPLACE THEM?

School administrators are already permitted to search students or their belongings if they have a "reasonable suspicion" the student is carrying a weapon or violating either school rules or laws. That right would stay in place if Garcia's resolution passes.

The resolution calls for district staff to craft a new policy by the end of next school year.

Victor Leung, deputy litigation director at the ACLU of Southern California, said the resolution contains what #StudentsNotSuspects coalition members consider two important assurances about the new policy.

First, the resolution precludes the district from increasing police presence or surveillance practices. Second, the resolution says the district's new policy cannot call for broad searches of the student population or for "other forms of non-individualized (i.e. random) searches."

"Searches based on individualized reasonable suspicion are sufficient to keep students safe," said Leung. "Those are the searches that, research has shown, actually do prevent weapons from being on campus and do find weapons in the rare cases they're brought."

UPDATES:

June 14, 9:50 a.m.: This article was updated to clarify that García is a co-sponsor of the resolution.

June 19, 9:45 a.m.: This article was updated to include the results of the school board's vote on the resolution.

This article was originally published at 6:00 a.m. June 14.