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When Students Lead, We All Win

“When I was in seventh grade, an administrator stopped my English class and pulled a lot of us out into the hallway with our bookbags. We were confused and nervous. They searched us with metal detectors, one by one, and made us dump out our bags so they can look through our things. We felt criminalized, we felt violated, and we felt humiliated. And we couldn’t concentrate for the rest of our day. It felt like nobody cared whether we learned anything or not. It actually felt like we were in jail instead of school, which is a problem.”

Public testimony from Nadera Powell to the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education on June 18, 2019.

Nadera’s testimony, among others at the school board meeting, powerfully described the harms of mandatory metal detector searches on students at LAUSD and made a difference in urging the board to vote to end the discriminatory practice.

The Random Search Policy

LAUSD first began using hand-held metal detectors, or “wands,” to search students in the early 1990s. In 2011, the district began mandating daily metal detector searches in secondary schools. It works like this: every day, administrators at secondary schools randomly select one classroom to search, then interrupt the teacher’s lesson to select students “randomly” to search, pull them out of class, scan their bodies, and search their bookbags and belongings.

In practice, the policy is unevenly or improperly implemented. Search logs released by the district in response to a Public Records Act request show that classrooms are sometimes not chosen randomly, such as when administrators choose a classroom based on anonymous tips. Records also show that students are not chosen randomly either and are instead chosen based on their gender, which is expressly prohibited under the policy and anti-discrimination laws. Students also report that they feel criminalized by the searches and some feel targeted based on their race and religion, with Black and Muslim students feeling especially targeted by school administrators.

Advocates of random searches claim that the searches make schools safe by finding weapons or by deterring students from bringing weapons to school. But they are wrong and the data does not support these claims. University researchers examined all the search logs and found that the majority of items confiscated during random searches are school supplies, such as markers, highlighters, white-out, and scissors. The logs reveal that few weapons are found through random searches, none of which are guns.

In 2018, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Blue Ribbon Panel on School Safety reached the same conclusion: “LAUSD’s mandatory metal detector search policy seriously risks eroding student trust—and thus their willingness to report real threats to adults—at schools throughout the District. Yet, no comprehensive evidence justifies the risk; rather, LAUSD’s internal audits have shown the policy to be largely ineffective at recovering weapons.”

The Emergence of a Campaign

Opposition to random searches grew steadily since the 1990s. In 2014, with the support of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Public Counsel, a teacher filed a school climate complaint against LAUSD to free him and his students from these harmful searches in his classroom. Many community groups rallied behind him, leading to the formation of the Students Not Suspects campaign to end mandatory metal detector searches of students in LAUSD.

Since then, the campaign grew into a student-led movement to advocate against random searches. Over time, the ACLU SoCal, Public Counsel, Youth Justice Coalition, Students Deserve, Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles, and United Teachers Los Angeles became the anchor organizations of the coalition. Other organizations, such as White People 4 Black Lives and several charter school networks, also support the campaign.

The Students Not Suspects (SNS) campaign adopted multiple strategies, including hosting public education drives on the harms associated with random searches, engaging school district leaders on school safety issues, and advocating for measures that provide positive supports for students.

The results were impressive:

  • Students educated more than 15,000 of their peers on the harms of the random searches with many students wearing buttons that read “End Random Searches”;

  • SNS gathered more than 4,000 signatures on an online petition;

  • More than 900 students, parents, educators, and community members attended the Making Black Lives Matter in Schools Conference in February 2018, which called for an end to the mandatory search policy;

  • More than 200 students, parents, educators, and community members urged the LA City Attorney and his Blue Ribbon Panel on School Safety to recommend an end to random searches in LAUSD; and,

  • A diverse group of over 70 organizations wrote to LAUSD’s Board and Superintendent in June 2018 declaring their support of the resolution to end mandatory metal detector searches.

Campaign Victory

The SNS campaign’s efforts came to a head at the June 18, 2019 meeting of the LAUSD Board of Education. The board passed a resolution to sunset mandatory “random” metal detector searches by July 1, 2020. For the first time in over 25 years, the district will finally stop performing these harmful and degrading searches of students.

The resolution further requires the superintendent to consult with stakeholders to propose an alternative policy that ensures every student’s right to be educated in a safe, respectful, and welcoming learning environment. Critically, the policy alternative cannot lead to an increase in police or police surveillance practices or result in general population searches where staff lack individualized suspicion to search a student.

To meet the July 1, 2020 deadline, SNS coalition members and allies will work with district staff to create the alternative safety policy that is rooted in evidence-based research and practices, and that respects the constitutional rights of students.

Principally, the SNS coalition will advocate for an increase in school-based mental health professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatric social workers; the implementation of community-based safe passage programs to support or accompany students who may feel unsafe to and from their way to school; and the faithful implementation of restorative justice practices to help students work through and heal from any kind of harm they experience at school, whether with a peer or an adult on campus.

While we work on the next phase of the campaign, we will continue to uphold a central hallmark of our theory of change: we must center the voices of marginalized students who are most directly impacted, or harmed, by oppressive school policies so that they are the champions of their own freedom.

Because of student leadership and the adult allies who support them, future generations of LAUSD students will not undergo these harmful, ineffective, and degrading searches at schools and will experience safety practices that truly aim at making them feel safe and respected.

Irene Rivera and Ana Mendoza are on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. Irene is an Education Policy Advocate and Organizer and Ana is a Staff Attorney. Both were active in the Students Not Suspects Campaign.

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