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Do school safety measures discriminate against some students? L.A. schools debate hot-button issue

Do school safety measures discriminate against some students? L.A. schools debate hot-button issue
Teachers, students and parents joined a pro-school police rally on Friday at Mulholland Middle School in the San Fernando Valley. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Amy Guerrero said she started getting randomly searched at her Koreatown middle school, Young Oak Kim Academy, when she was 12 years old.

"I got searched all the time, but I never saw the nurse, not once," said Amy, who is 15 and a sophomore at UCLA Community School, which also is in Koreatown. "Whenever I felt sick or had a cut they said the nurse wasn't there that day, but I saw the officers all the time."

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In the wake of the school shooting that took 17 lives in Parkland, Fla., earlier this month, there has been much debate about how to make campuses more secure.

Some have called for more police on campuses, others for improved mental health services for students. President Trump has suggested arming teachers.

But in Los Angeles, the debate over safety also has extended in another direction.

Some students believe the current system for searching students for weapons is unfair, while others believe it makes campuses safer and want even more safety measures.

In back-to-back events, Los Angeles students and teachers landed on starkly different sides in a debate over security measures at schools.

On Friday in the west San Fernando Valley, teachers and students gave school police — and even random searches of students — a resounding vote of confidence.

The next day, in a gathering south of downtown, participants criticized an approach to security that they said criminalized students, victimizing them more than protecting them. They want to end random searches of students; some activists called for an end to police officers on campus.

These contrasting views took on deeper resonance after the Feb. 14 shooting in Florida and an incident earlier this month in which a discharging pistol — brought to campus by a student — wounded two L.A. students at Castro Middle School just west of downtown. Since the Parkland killings, local law enforcement has responded to several serious and mock threats, which have left families and communities on edge.

But such dangers were not the real focus of either of the two local events. Instead, students and teachers discussed how police officers and school staff treat students, and whether students are better off for it.

"At Mulholland Middle School, we do need random searches," said Kameran Charles, 14, at the pro-police rally. "Taking away these searches is basically telling students they can bring whatever they want to school."

Mulholland has course work that focuses on policing.

"They are not just officers," said Kameran, an eighth-grader. "They are huge mentors…. They are for you and they can play a role as a teacher."

The policy at L.A. Unified is to conduct at least one search of randomly chosen students in a randomly chosen class every day at every middle and high school. The policy is intended to prevent discrimination and stereotyping. But it's difficult to determine how closely the district has followed its rules because of poor record-keeping.

Administrators conduct the searches and call in officers when contraband or weapons are discovered. . Guns are almost never found, which could mean that the searches are unnecessary or that the policy works as a deterrent.

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L.A. high schools typically have one or two armed officers on campus, said district and police union officials. Middle schools typically have one officer, who may or may not be armed. Elementary schools have no campus police, but roving patrols are supposed to remain nearby.

Both rallies drew enthusiastic participation. Nearly 200 people braved a cold late Friday afternoon wind at Mulholland Middle School in Lake Balboa, while several hundred turned out Saturday at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.

The gathering for critics of policing efforts was part of a long-running campaign.

"Random searches are never random," said Sumaiya Sabnam, a junior at UCLA Community School. "Somehow, I am always the fifth person they pick. They search me with a wand, and dig through my backpack and all I'm thinking is, 'Why am I here? Why am I being searched three times in a row?'"

"There is no reason an 11-year-old needs to be criminalized," said Grace Hamilton, a senior at Marshall High School in Los Feliz. "Random searches erode trust and don't make us feel safe."

The proper prescription, they said, is to provide better resources, including more counseling and mental health services. Schools, they said, need to develop more nurturing cultures to help those headed down the wrong path. And students and staff, they said, can be trusted to recognize real threats that might justify a search based on reasonable suspicion.

But after recent episodes of violence, especially at Parkland, many have called for tighter security, including a larger and more visible police presence.

If a campus is threatened, "who are you going to call?" said Colleen Schwab, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at Mulholland. The school police officer "is the highly trained individual who is going to be there."

Schwab helped organize the pro-police rally along with Scott Mandel, who runs the musical theater program at Pacoima Middle School. Their effort was part of a conscious challenge to the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles, which co-sponsored the event at Trade Tech, along with groups that included Black Lives Matter, Public Counsel and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

Police union leaders criticized the involvement of UTLA, saying that the teachers union was implicitly endorsing the elimination of school police.

Teachers union president Alex Caputo-Pearl defended his union's co-sponsorship role. He said Friday that it's important to listen to student leaders. At the same time, he said, "UTLA has not and is not calling for cuts to school police."

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