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A backlash against Los Angeles schools as high-security fortresses

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An L.A. school policy of mandatory bag checks and random metal detector scans fits a nationwide trend of schools beefing up security. But a coalition of educators says that the trend has gone too far. 

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    Students (from l.) Zahnki Woods, Jimmy Escobar, Carlos Fructuoso, Gissell Gomez, and Jesse Vargas stand with their teacher, Vitaly (2nd r.), outside their classroom at Central High School, a Los Angeles Unified School District continuation school in Culver City, Calif., on Thursday.
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    Principal Kristin Botello sits behind her desk at Animo Jackie Robinson, a charter school in Los Angeles, on Thursday.
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Vitaly refuses to use a metal detector on his students.

The educator runs the Culver City site for Central High School, a Los Angeles Unified School District continuation school for students at risk of dropping out. To engage his class of ninth- through 12th-graders – all of whom identify as people of color and working class or low-income – Vitaly says he has to earn their trust.

Complying with the district policy to conduct random searches with a metal detector wand, he says, would do just the opposite.

“On my campus, there has never been a violent incident,” says Vitaly, who goes by one name. “Here they are, supposedly high school dropouts, and they’re learning, bettering themselves. They’re doing what the system hasn’t been able to make them do in traditional schools. They relax and let their guard down.”

“And I’m supposed to search them with metal detectors?” he asks. “That’s the most counterintuitive, counterproductive thing I could dream up. I would be like all the other adults in their lives that have traumatized them.”

Vitaly is one educator in a coalition of teacher’s unions, charter schools, civil rights groups, and educational organizations across Los Angeles that is urging the district to revise its school security policy, which calls for daily, random metal detector and locker searches at all L.A. Unified secondary and co-located charter schools.

The request, school safety analysts say, is part of an ongoing debate over how to protect students in an era of violence without turning campuses into fortresses. The question is central to a broader nationwide struggle to reconcile zero-tolerance policies in the juvenile and criminal justice systems with those that focus on community engagement and relationship-building, they say.

“There’s an inherent tension between beefed-up security on one end of the rope and maintaining a welcoming, supportive school climate on the other,” says Kenneth Trump, a school security consultant who runs National School Safety and Security Services, a private consulting firm based in Cleveland.

In the wake of high-profile mass shootings like the 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the tension between the two sides tends to escalate, Mr. Trump says.

“That’s a very tense tightrope to have to walk,” he notes. “We’re still struggling to find that balance.”

'Discipline with dignity'

On May 25, the Los Angeles coalition called for a moratorium on random metal detector searches of students.

In an e-mailed statement to the Monitor, L.A. Unified noted that the district has a responsibility to “provide a safe environment for students to learn....” Part of that mandate, the district wrote, is to enforce school safety measures.

Individual board members did not respond to requests for comment.

Some studies suggest that using metal detectors – along with drug-sniffing dogs, increased police presence, and other security measures – produces mixed results, at best. A 2011 review of 15 years of literature on the effects of metal detectors found that there was insufficient evidence to prove that their use had any positive effects on student and staff behavior or perceptions.

Even some veteran school security analysts hesitate to recommend the use of metal detectors.

“If I could see the assessment that decided that this is what’s required to reduce our risk [at this school], that would make sense to me,” says Erroll Southers, director of Homegrown Violent Extremism Studies in the Safe Communities Institute at the University of Southern California.

But “I wouldn’t send my kid to a school that had [students] walk through a metal detector,” he says. “My comfort level doesn’t go up.”

In Los Angeles, those involved in efforts to reform L.A. Unified’s random search policy say there are ways to ensure safety without traumatizing students.

“We believe in discipline with dignity, discipline without damage, in trusting relationships between students and adults,” says Cristina de Jesus, president and chief executive officer of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management group that’s among those leading the push.

What students say

Vitaly agrees – as do his students. Lounging on padded chairs and a couch arranged in a circle in their classroom – where portraits of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. gaze down from high on the walls – they share their experiences with random searches at their previous schools.

“I used to get searched all the time,” says Zahnki Woods, a 10th-grader. Granted, he wasn’t always innocent; he often brought liquor, candy, and other contraband to sell at school, he says, mostly because he was bored and needed the money.

But the searches were intrusive, even when they didn’t use the metal detector wand, he says: “They take all the stuff out of your bag and dump it out. Like your personal stuff doesn’t matter, your privacy doesn’t matter.”

Nor did the threat of getting searched prevent him from sneaking in banned items, anyway. “I just found a new place to put them,” Zahnki says.

Gissell Gomez, a ninth-grader, adds that she lost a lot of class time because of those searches. “They’d keep me in the office for the rest of the day,” she says.

None of the students could recall a gun ever being recovered as a result of a random search, although Zahnki says someone brought a pocket knife once.

When asked if he would ever bring contraband to class today, Zanhki shakes his head. “It’s different. You don’t make it seem like we have a reason to be searched,” he adds, speaking to Vitaly.

“It’s basically a home,” Gissell says.

Supplement, not substitute

Still, some say metal detectors and related security measures have been effective.

“Thirty years ago, I’d go into any school and would constantly have to be on guard, looking for a bulge in a pocket as a sign of a weapon,” said Eric Weston, chief of police for Boston Public Schools, to MassLive.com in 2015.

“[Metal detectors] changed things,” he added, saying they helped keep firearms out of schools and reduced the number of other weapons on campuses.

Perception matters, too. Calls for tighter, more visible security measures often follow a violent incident at school – as in the cases of the 1999 Columbine shooting in Colorado and the 2012 Sandy Hook tragedy in Connecticut.

In May, an accidental shooting at Southside High School in Greenville, S.C., led to hundreds of locals signing an online petition calling for metal detectors in Greenville County schools. And a murder-suicide at the University of California, Los Angeles on Wednesday has again spurred discussions around campus security at all grade levels. 

The response is understandable, says Trump, the consultant from Cleveland. He and others agree that measures like installing security cameras and requiring ID cards of students and staff can play a role in keeping schools safe.

But in the end, he notes, “it’s not the fortified entrance way with the metal detector that makes the school secure. It’s the people beyond that entrance. Any type of equipment or hardware is going to be a supplement to but not a substitute for human relationships and behavior.”

Making students feel safe

That’s the philosophy that Kristin Botello, principal at Animo Jackie Robinson – a Green Dot charter school in Los Angeles – tries to implement among her students and staff. Like Vitaly at Central High, Ms. Botello takes the view that relying on security equipment and punitive measures to enforce safety and discipline creates a climate of fear.

Principal Kristin Botello sits behind her desk at Animo Jackie Robinson, a charter school in Los Angeles, on Thursday. Jessica Mendoza/The Christian Science Monitor

“The best way to deter students from bringing weapons is for them to say, ‘I don’t feel unsafe,’ ” she says. “That kind of trust takes years to build.”

Both Botello and Vitaly are careful not to rule out security equipment entirely.

“I wouldn’t presume to tell somebody else what to do to make their campus safe,” Vitaly says. “I’m being responsive to what I hear [my students] asking for. To them saying, ‘This is what we need to feel safe.’ ”

“We’re not trying to be contrary. We’re not trying to be rebellious,” Botello says. “We just want to engage in conversation … [and] for the district to consider the negative fallout of this kind of practice.”

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