Activists Fighting LAUSD's Random Search Policy Gain An Ally: L.A.'s Top Lawyer

A Los Angeles School Safety officer stands guard as students arrive at a school in Los Angeles on Dec. 16, 2015. (Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images)

If you went to a Los Angeles Unified middle- or high school in the last two decades, chances are you remember being "wanded."

Since 1993, staff in LAUSD schools have been searching students, at random, every day, for weapons and drugs. The administrator conducts the search with a handheld metal detector wand — like those often seen at concerts and stadiums — hence the nickname for the district's random search policy: "wanding."

L.A.'s chief attorney Mike Feuer wants that practice to end. A blue ribbon panel on school safety he convened released its final recommendations to improve safety in LAUSD schools on Monday.

Among them: the district should suspend its random search policy and conduct a "comprehensive, large-scale audit of the policy."

Though L.A. Unified's sworn school police are not allowed to conduct the random searches, officers believe the policy deters students from bringing weapons or drugs to school. Over the last 25 years, the number of guns police have found on campus has plummeted.

But in the last few years, civil rights activists and student groups have been voicing louder and louder opposition to the wanding policy.

Opponents note that more than 34,000 random searches in LAUSD in recent years turned up only 76 weapons, none of them guns. They say the searches breaks students' trust in their teachers, making them less likely to report the next Columbine, Parkland or Castro Middle School before it happens.

The final report noted this was the "most controversial" of the panel's recommendations. But the panel made others too, including the "overarching" recommendation that LAUSD to appoint a "high-level" official to oversee school safety efforts of all kinds across the district.

WHO IS ON THIS PANEL?

Twenty-one students, educators, community members, law enforcement representatives and other dignitaries. You can read all about them in the full report:

WHAT DID THEY SAY LAUSD NEEDS TO DO DIFFERENTLY?

The panel made dozens of recommendations. Among them:

  • LAUSD should ensure, at minimum, that every school campus has a single point of entry and that every classroom has a two-way intercom and a door that locks from the inside.
  • LAUSD should conduct "age-appropriate" active-shooter trainings for kids.
  • LAUSD should "ultimately" aim to staff every school site with a full-time mental health professional.
  • Local law enforcement agencies — LAPD officers, the Sheriff's Department and L.A. School Police — should "collaborate to share data about neighborhood crime around school sites."

WHAT'S THE CASE AGAINST WANDING?

In weighing in on the district's wanding policy, the panel lent credence to many of the arguments civil rights groups and student activists have made against the policy for years.

Feuer acknowledged that a majority of LAUSD parents support the random search policy.

But Feuer also noted many students feel the searches are often far from random. He said many students of color who testified during the panel's meetings felt they were singled out for a search because of their race.

"We believe," Feuer added, "that it's extremely important — and this theme pervades our report — that there be a strong culture and relationship of trust on school campuses between students and the adults with whom they interact. The majority of our panelists felt that the random [searches] detracts from that."

Carlos Moreno, a former California Supreme Court justice, suggested that for school principals and deans — not law enforcement officers — to be conducting the searches "diminished and ... demeaned the role of [school] administrators who were called into service."

WHY MIGHT WANDING BE A GOOD IDEA?

Authorities do find weapons on LAUSD every year, including guns, but most are not discovered during a random search. Feuer made the point that students tips were uncovering the majority of the 300 to 400 weapons on campuses each year.

L.A. School Police Chief Steve Zipperman said those numbers are far lower than when the district implemented the random search policy in 1993. Prior to then, he said school police would find around 1,000 weapons on campuses each year.

"It begs the question," Zipperman said after Monday's press conference, "is the reason we're finding these weapons on campus — rather than on the student — because of the fear of being possibly randomly wanded?"

The final report notes two panelists dissented from the recommendation to suspend the wanding policy, but does not name which panelists exactly.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THIS REPORT? DOES IT JUST SIT ON A SHELF?

Now it's up to LAUSD administrators and the district's school board. From the lectern at Monday's press conference, board member Scott Schmerelson promised "that we will make this happen ... This will be done."

Still, the district is not obligated to follow any of the panel's recommendations. And it's worth noting, some recommendations might cost the district money not currently budgeted.

For instance, L.A.'s main teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, has demanded the district provide every campus with a mental health worker or counselor as part of their contract negotiations. District officials have resisted that proposal because they feel it would be too costly.

But Feuer noted the report acknowledges funding this proposal will take time. He also said the district could team with the county in lobbying Sacramento for more mental health funding.

"We recognize how constrained the district's resources are and we're not walking into the negotiations between the union and the board," Feuer said. "Realistically, this is going to take time, our report acknowledges that, it's not going to happen all at once...

"But other states," the city attorney added, "have found the resources in the wake of Parkland to improve safety on campuses."

Read the full report below:

UPDATES:

6:23 p.m. This article was updated with additional details about the report's findings.

This story was originally published at 11:16 a.m.


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