Metal detectors scrutinized by L.A. student groups

Metal detectors scrutinized by L.A. student groups

(Calif.) The use of metal detectors and random searches has again come into question as students groups and equal rights organizations called this week on Los Angeles Unified to drop the policy, which they argued is ineffective and reliant on racial profiling.

The district school board–already entrenched in controversy as one sitting member faces three felony charges for money laundering–held an informational hearing Tuesday focused on its random metal detector search safety policy and how it is implemented in schools.

“‘Random’ searches are not random,” Grace Hamilton, a senior at Marshall High School and leader of the student-led advocacy group Students Deserve, wrote in an op-ed for the United Teachers Los Angeles prior to the hearing. She said that in speaking with students from more than 15 schools involved in the organization, it became apparent that minority groups were being targeted, as were students who weren’t in honors courses, which she said were rarely, if ever, searched.

 “There is no evidence that searches keep weapons and violence out of schools, but there is evidence of mistrust between students and administrators because of them,” Hamilton wrote. “LAUSD needs to end the current random search policy in order to stop criminalization in schools and replace it with conditions that will help all students feel genuinely safe.”

Nearly 9 percent of American high schools used random metal detector checks in the 2013-14 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 1.5 percent of primary schools and 7.5 percent of middle schools also employed random searches using metal detectors.

Often, calls for the installation of metal detectors in schools follow incidents of violence on campus that involve a gun or knife. Last year, in Rapid City, South Dakota for instance, a fight broke out between two middle school students, resulting in one boy stabbing the other. Many parents called for stricter punishment for those who bring weapons, as well as metal detectors to catch them.

In their presentation to the Los Angeles school board Tuesday, members of the district superintendent’s office pointed to similar events in recent years in defending the district’s own policy–including the 2016 stabbing of an 11-year-old by a fellow student at Bridge Street Elementary.

All secondary schools must conduct daily random searches using hand-held metal detectors at various hours of the school day under LAUSD’s search policy. Administrators said during the hearing that the random searches act as a deterrent to weapons such as guns, knives, or any other item which might cause harm or injury from being brought to campus.

Those who oppose the searchers, however, say that they do little to keep weapons off school grounds, but that they foster a perception of a police-state environment that erodes school trust between students and staff. They also argue that these searches target students of color–a statement backed by recent research.

Researchers at the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida found last year that campuses with larger populations of students of color are more likely to use more intense surveillance techniques that include a mix of metal detectors, random sweeps, and the employment of school police and security guards. In schools where students of color accounted for more than half of the student body, the study found that the probability of the school using tactics such as random metal detector searches was two to 18 times greater than at schools where the nonwhite population was less than 20 percent. The report echoed similar findings published by researchers at the University of Delaware and the University of California, Irvine in 2011.

Members from organizations including the ACLU of Southern California, Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, Public Counsel and Students Deserve called on board members Tuesday to remove the random metal detector policy. The groups are asking for the policy to be replaced with expanded safe passage programs, additional school counselors and wraparound services that school physical and mental health clinics.

Doing so, Hamilton wrote, would be in line with the board’s 2013 decision to implement restorative justice in all schools by 2020. Restorative justice practices include mediation or group discussions to resolve conflict while moving away from zero tolerance policies in order to curb suspension and expulsion.

The hearing was largely overshadowed by the announcement that three board members allied with board member Ref Rodriguez called on him to step aside until he resolves his criminal case Tuesday, as he plead not guilty to felony and misdemeanor charges for alleged campaign money laundering. Prosecutors allege that Rodriguez funneled his own money into his successful bid for office in 2015 by reimbursing straw donors. After his court appearance Tuesday, Rodriguez announced that he would not be stepping down, and would continue to serve on the board as his criminal case moves forward.

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