Editorial

'Wanding' for weapons at Los Angeles public schools

For 23 years after L.A. schools started conducting random weapons checks on students, not a single parent complained, according to leaders at the Los Angeles Unified School District. The policy was instituted after a gun brought to school in 1993 by a 15-year-old accidentally discharged, killing another student. The random checks are carried out using a metal-detecting wand at varying times of the day in middle schools and high schools.

But some parents are complaining now -- along with the charter-school chain Green Dot Public Schools and, surprisingly, the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, which rarely finds itself in agreement on any subject with the charter schools. They allege that “wanding” makes students feel like criminal suspects and creates an environment that helps feed the school-to-prison pipeline. There are other ways to make schools safer, they say —  offering buses that provide safe passage to schools, for example -- so that students don’t feel they need to carry a weapon to defend themselves. (The student in the 1993 case had been threatened on the way to school.)  

The situation came to a head last year after the district’s policy was amended to clarify that it covers all charter schools that operate on district property – and  Green Dot’s charter schools refused to participate. 

That’s unacceptable. Charter schools sign an agreement accepting the policy and it’s their responsibility to abide by it. Students at charter schools that share campuses with traditional district schools generally use the same athletic fields and cafeterias; it’s not as though the two populations are locked away from each other all day – students at one school can pose a danger to students at the other. If charter schools don’t like the rules, they should find other facilities or persuade the district to reconsider its overall policy.

But the charter schools and the union are right about this: For too long, the district has settled into the belief that random metal detection is working, without bothering to gather evidence. The policy should have been reviewed a long time ago. Parent complaints or not, it’s an intrusive business to pull students out of class and search them with  metal-detecting wands. This isn’t the kind of atmosphere a school should have and everyone knows it -- but if it’s absolutely necessary to protect students, then that takes priority over atmosphere.

As a result of the complaints, the district has finally said it will now review the policy.

Random metal detection was never expected to be foolproof, and it’s not. In 2011, a gun brought to Gardena High School discharged accidentally when the backpack in which it was being carried fell to the floor. Two 15-year-old students were injured.

Last year, two guns were found at a campus in the Valley that is shared by district and charter school students. A teacher had noticed suspicious behavior by a student at the district school, and a search yielded the first gun. That student then told administrators about a student at the charter school who also had a gun. The district sees this as evidence that its policy of including charter schools is important. Opponents of random metal-detector searches note that it was an attentive teacher, not a metal detector, that found the weapon.

Those are anecdotes, though, not evidence. Every year, the district confiscates hundreds of weapons from students, mainly knives and razor blades. In 2014-15, more than 800 weapons were found on students; this past year, 440 were confiscated, including 15 firearms.  Yet L.A. Unified has never gathered even such basic data as how many of the confiscated weapons were found by metal detectors or by other means, and this it should do right away. Nor has it looked for evidence that over time, the policy has acted as an effective deterrent. 

The district also should do an expansive survey of students asking whether wanding makes them feel safer in school or whether they feel, as Green Dot and others suggest, like criminal suspects.

Random weapons searches have been falling out of favor in school districts across the nation in recent years: According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of schools doing random weapons searches dropped from 7% in 2000 to 4% in 2014.  

The district gets to make the rules for its campuses, and Green Dot has to obey them when it operates on district property. But just because the L.A. Unified policy goes back 23 years, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best method to reduce weapons on campus. L.A. Unified should examine the metal-detection policy with an open mind to ensure that it is both effective and fair — and listen to critics to consider whether there are other, better or additional, ways to improve campus safety.

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