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Let's hope the Salvador Castro Middle School shooting finally wakes up L.A. Unified on school safety

Let's hope the Salvador Castro Middle School shooting finally wakes up L.A. Unified on school safety
Emergency vehicles descend on Salvador Castro Middle School in Westlake after a shooting erupted on Feb. 1. (KTLA-TV)

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.

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Some will look at the most recently shooting, which critically injured a 15-year-old 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 because, despite years of challenges to the random searches (known as "wanding"), 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.

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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.

Despite years of challenges to the random searches (or 'wanding'), the district still hasn’t taken a comprehensive look at whether its policy is effective.


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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 was an audit of 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 they are necessary to keep students safe.

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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? Perhaps 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 in the decades since then, and the policy needs a thorough examination.

The district has an unfortunate tendency to institute programs without the necessary follow-up 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 on campus 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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