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Charter groups bridle at LAUSD’s order to ‘wand’ students to detect weapons

June 3, 2016

The box of hand-held metal detectors arrived out of the blue and without an explanation in December. Principal Kristin Botello shoved them in a closet and carried on with her work at her South Los Angeles charter school.

Botello later learned the box came with a mandate that requires Animo Jackie Robinson High School to conduct random daily searches of its students with the wands. Los Angeles Unified School District officials say the policy protects students from classmates who might be carrying weapons.  

The charter school and its parent organization, Green Dot Public Schools, have refused to comply with the requirement, arguing that random searches will undermine the safety that comes from strong pupil-educator relationships. 

The charter’s standoff with district administrators has drawn an unlikely ally in United Teachers Los Angeles as both groups joined civil rights organizations to craft a letter that was sent to the district May 25 calling on the district to revise or rescind the policy. 

“We live and work in a community where kids are profiled every day by different forms of authority, whether it’s police on the street or by shop owners,” Botello said.

School administrators support safety, she said, but question whether randomly waving a wand over students will achieve that objective. 

Gun violence at schools – from the 2012 slaying of 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut to Wednesday’s fatal shooting of a UCLA professor by a former student who then committed suicide – has amplified the debate about campus safety measures.

Supporters of such searches say they could help prevent school shootings, but critics argue that innocent children begin to resent the constant threat of electronic frisking by authorities whom they must trust if they’re going to learn from them. They also point to what they characterize as an overreaction to violence that ushered in zero-tolerance policies that led, for example, to the suspension of a 7-year-old Tarzana Elementary School student who was caught with an inch-long toy gun on a keychain. 

“It’s a delicate balance for school administrators and school police leaders,” said Kenneth Trump, president of the consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services.

The best way to protect students is for trained teachers and administrators to watch for signs that a student may be dangerous, he said. “Far too many people tend to look at metal detectors or any other hardware as a quick fix.”

L.A. Unified officials say the district’s wanding policy has been in place since the early 1990s, when a fatal shooting at Fairfax High School spurred then-Supt. Sid Thompson to start random searches as a pilot program at all middle and high schools. 

In October, Los Angeles Unified administrators revised the district’s wanding policy to clearly state that charter schools on district property must conduct random daily searches, with metal detectors but they argue that the revision was simply reinforcing a requirement that had always existed. 

District officials cite an incident last year in which administrators found two loaded guns on students from Alliance Tennenbaum Family Technology Charter High School as an example that the policy is working and as a reason why charter schools must comply. 

According to an LAUSD report, nearly 840 weapons were collected across the district in the 2014-15 school year. The report does not specify how the weapons were discovered.

David Holmquist, L.A. Unified’s general counsel, defended the wanding policy. He said critics have not provided evidence that such a policy is harmful or offered better alternatives that do not simply rely on trusting that students will not bring weapons to school or will tell an administrator if they see someone with a weapon.

“Unless and until we come up with a better policy, to simply abandon a safety measure in favor of nothing or trying to build a culture of trust that will hopefully discourage people from bringing guns on campus, is just not the kind of situation that I want to defend the district on,” Holmquist said. 

But schools across the district implement the policy differently, with some conducting daily searches and others choosing to obey the policy less frequently or ignore it altogether. At Animo Jackie Robinson High, administrators said they didn’t know the policy applied to their independently run campuses.

Nico Conanan, who attends Central High School — a small school that focuses on bolstering the academic records of students who are at risk of dropping out — said the policy has never made him feel safer.

Conanan was one of three students at the school who last year were randomly selected, removed from class and scanned with a metal detector.

“It was invasive,” Conanan said. “It was basically violating everything we had worked to do in the classroom. All the students had established a relationship with the teacher … and they just came in and tarnished that.”

In its letter to the district, a coalition that includes charter schools, civil rights and educational organizations and United Teachers Los Angeles asks the school district for a moratorium on the policy until it can be changed.

hopingThe coalition hopes  that the school board will consider the letter at its next meeting. 

Meanwhile, district officials say charter schools must comply with the policy or risk sanctions that can include revoking their ability to continue operating.

zahira.torres@latimes.com

Follow @zahiratorres on Twitter

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