Los Angeles Times

An alarm bell on school safety


The Thurs­day morn­ing shoot­ing at Sal­vador Cas­tro Mid­dle School in West­lake brings clash­ing con­cerns about weapons on cam­pus face to face. On one side are civil rights ad­vo­cates, as well as some par­ents and char­ter school op­er­a­tors, who de­cry the Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict’s pol­icy of ran­domly search­ing stu­dents ev­ery day at ev­ery mid­dle and high school, us­ing metal de­tect­ing wands. It’s hu­mil­i­at­ing and in­ter­rupts school time, they jus­ti­fi­ably con­tend.

On the other side are dis­trict of­fi­cials and par­ents who say, with equal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, that any em­bar­rass­ment is mi­nor com­pared with the safety is­sue of keep­ing deadly weapons off cam­pus.

Some will look at the most re­cently shoot­ing, which crit­i­cally in­jured a 15-yearold boy, as ev­i­dence that the searches are needed. Oth­ers will see an in­ef­fec­tive pol­icy that didn’t pre­vent a gun in­jury on cam­pus.

The shame of the mat­ter is that no one re­ally knows. De­spite years of chal­lenges to the ran­dom “wand­ing” searches, the dis­trict still hasn’t taken a com­pre­hen­sive look at whether its pol­icy is ef­fec­tive. Nor has it ex­am­ined whether other forms of vi­o­lence pro­tec­tion might be just as ef­fec­tive with­out the in­tru­sive­ness that fos­ters a cul­ture of mis­trust be­tween stu­dents and school staff.

Dur­ing the 2014-15 school year, searches yielded more than 800 weapons, most of them knives and blades. Fif­teen were firearms. But in ad­di­tion to find­ing con­tra­band, dis­trict of­fi­cials in­sist, the ran­dom searches serve as a de­ter­rent and that the num­bers of weapons be­ing car­ried on cam­pus would be much higher with­out it.

Maybe that’s true. Maybe not. The prob­lem is that, more than a year and a half af­ter this page called on the dis­trict to gather the nec­es­sary facts, it still hasn’t got­ten to the bot­tom of the is­sue.

What it has done is an au­dit that found the search pol­icy was fol­lowed er­rat­i­cally, lend­ing cre­dence to crit­ics who de­scribe the searches as un­even and un­fair, tar­get­ing some stu­dents over oth­ers. De­spite the dis­trict’s rules, some schools don’t con­duct searches ev­ery day. Some don’t have enough wands to get the job done. And this au­dit ex­am­ined the prac­tices at only 20 schools; who knows what’s go­ing on at scores more?

Late last year, act­ing Supt. Vi­vian Ekchian said she would com­mis­sion a sur­vey of at­ti­tudes about the searches. But this is about much more than at­ti­tudes; the key is­sue isn’t how peo­ple feel about weapons searches, but whether the searches are nec­es­sary to keep stu­dents safe.

The dis­trict could run its own ex­per­i­ment with dif­fer­ent se­cu­rity mea­sures at var­i­ous cam­puses, in­clud­ing safe pas­sage pro­grams to help stu­dents get safely to and from school. Op­po­nents of the searches have con­tended that pro­vid­ing trans­porta­tion would do more to en­sure stu­dent safety than any num­ber of metal-de­tect­ing wands.

School lead­ers also could look out­side the dis­trict for an­swers: The Na­tional Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Statis­tics re­ports that ran­dom weapons searches have lost fa­vor at many schools. In 2000, 7% of schools around the coun­try con­ducted the searches; by 2014, that had dropped to 4%. What has hap­pened at the schools that stopped? Are they just as safe, or even safer? What meth­ods are they us­ing? Or, per­haps, weapons have be­come prob­lem­atic at those schools, in­di­cat­ing that searches are jus­ti­fied.

L.A. Uni­fied be­gan the ran­dom searches af­ter two 1993 shoot­ing in­ci­dents in which stu­dents were killed on cam­pus. That’s an un­der­stand­able re­ac­tion. But crime rates have fallen dra­mat­i­cally since then, and the pol­icy needs a thor­ough ex­am­i­na­tion.

The dis­trict has an un­for­tu­nate ten­dency to in­sti­tute pro­grams with­out the fol­lowup needed to en­sure that they ac­tu­ally work. Is­sues dan­gle in­stead of be­ing re­solved. That’s what hap­pened when the dis­trict took no­tice of its prob­lems with chronic tru­ancy. It started a few at­ten­dance pilots at var­i­ous schools but never looked into which ones should be ex­panded and which ones had lit­tle ef­fect. Ul­ti­mately, an out­side panel delved into the is­sue and came up with a plan that the dis­trict re­cently em­braced.

Safety is an even more im­por­tant mat­ter. We’d rather do with­out the searches if pos­si­ble; stu­dents should be treated like ea­ger learn­ers, not sus­pects. But it would be even worse for stu­dents to feel — and be — in dan­ger. Dis­trict of­fi­cials need to get be­yond the de­bate and get the ev­i­dence on how to pro­tect stu­dents prop­erly.

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