For the past three years, students and adult allies have built a campaign to end the dehumanizing and demoralizing 26-year practice of randomly pulling secondary students, some as young as 11, out of class — without cause — to search their bodies and their belongings for weapons with metal detector wands.
Those who oppose random wanding know it is not effective at deterring weapons possession on campuses. In fact, weapons account for an estimated one percent of items confiscated through mandatory metal detector searches.
And the practice is demoralizing: students consistently report feeling alienated, disrespected and disempowered by the practice, which they say devalues their education and makes them feel like criminal suspects. Further, as a result of random searches, students lose valuable instructional time, teachers’ instruction is disrupted and the policy completely contradicts LA Unified’s goal to create classroom environments of respect and rapport.
But last month, inspired by a coalition of youth leaders, educators, community advocates and researchers, the Los Angeles Unified School Board passed a resolution to finally end this practice, jump-starting the path toward truly restorative schools. This is a powerful and long-overdue win.
At Mendez High School, a traditional LA Unified public high school within the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools network, we fundamentally believe the random wanding practice is at odds with our vision of restorative practices and safe and supportive schools. A crucial test in our school’s quality and culture is whether or not our staff would — and do — enroll our own children at Mendez. My children, and several other staff members’ children, attend Mendez. And none of us want our children losing learning time to be searched like suspects. In solidarity with thousands of educators, students and parents, I am glad the practice will sunset in 2020, as it never should have been implemented in the first place in our learning institutions.
In the June 2018 ACLU report, Here to Learn, I shared what we believe should be true to create safe, college-going, restorative school cultures for our students. When our students told us the practice made them feel less — not more — safe because it presumes there are weapons to be found, we listened.
When our teachers and parents told us the practice ran counter to everything else we said about Mendez being “the happiest place in the galaxy,” we listened. We participated in this year’s LA Unified pilot of reduced random searches, and for the 2019-20 school year, we were accepted to participate in the full wanding exemption pilot negotiated by the United Teachers of Los Angeles. Now that LA Unified’s Board has listened to our students and passed this resolution, we are happy to say that we will never again wand our students — not next year or any year after.
This is a victory for all of us: students — every single one of whom deserves the academic and social-emotional preparation to thrive in the college and career of their choice; educators — all of whom do their best every day to create safe and welcoming environments for authentic learning; and communities — particularly for communities of color experiencing poverty, where a culture of criminalization has been perpetually enforced by institutions of power.
And as we now seek alternatives to random searches, we must acknowledge that there isn’t one perfect solution. But there are several things schools can do to create a safe space for all and build a culture of safety awareness.
First and foremost, schools must establish positive relationships with and among students, and ensure students feel connected to the school. If students care about their classmates, the adults on campus and their school, then they will alert school staff to any dangers on campus.
Another safety component that schools can implement is an anonymous tip line that allows students to communicate with adults on campus immediately when something is not right.
Finally, the reality at all schools is that the vast majority of students are doing what is being asked of them most of the time, and when we consistently acknowledge and celebrate our students we inspire them to help make schools safer by not engaging in dangerous activities and alerting us if they suspect or witness something.
It’s now time for students, teachers, school leaders and parents to move forward to create positive school cultures and focus on the important work of learning so that all students in Los Angeles are prepared with the skills and behaviors necessary to thrive in the 21st century.
Mauro Bautista is principal of Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez High School in Los Angeles.
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