For eight years now, officials at Los Angeles public schools have carried out random searches of students on a daily basis. The policy, which applies to every middle and high school in the district, followed two separate student deaths in 1993 - both of which resulted from a classmate pulling out a weapon in class.
But at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles, the policy is being challenged by students and privacy-rights advocates. They claim students are frequently searched against their will, without warning, and in front of other students - in violation of school policy.
The case could clarify dozens of others nationwide, say some legal scholars, while others see a possible showdown at the US Supreme Court in a test of racial profiling.
The questions at hand: Can students be searched arbitrarily and without consent? How must such searches be carried out?
"This is a very significant case because it is the first time there has been a clear, significant challenge to the T.L.O. decision [a landmark 1985 US Supreme Court case] that has long governed how these searches must take place," says Rob DeKoven, a law professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego.
The T.L.O. decision, which got its name from the initials of the minor involved, held that school officials and administrators must have a reasonable suspicion that a student is carrying a gun or intends to break the law before that student may be searched.
"A number of related interpretations have been brewing in the circuit courts for a while, and the high court [US Supreme Court] may want to use this to further clarify its intent," says Professor DeKoven.
Students feel left in the dark
Some students say the searches have crossed the line. "They are doing it without warning and without telling us their reasons or what they are suspicious of," says Toi Benford, a 15-year-old African-American student. "If it is random, I can understand that, but we want to know if there is something going on on our campus so we can do something about it, too."
The complaints gained ear with the American Civil Liberties Union. "The students came to us and said they are being forced to stand against the wall and spread their arms and legs, while they are patted down in front of other students," says Christopher Tan, lead attorney on the case for the ACLU. "Our problem is that they are being frisked and having bags inspected without any reasonable suspicion that the student possesses a weapon."
The school district says that the policy was created with ACLU suggestions from the beginning and feels that the program has been very successful as a deterrent. The number of guns found on campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) was 43 in the school year 1999-2000, they say, compared with 151 in 1993.
"This program has not been foolproof, but it has been a proven deterrent," says Susan Cox, spokeswoman for the LAUSD Board of Education.
Rosa Cuevas, another student, says the drive to deter has resulted in unfair procedures. "It's the way they treat us. They make us feel like criminals," says the 17-year-old. "They pick us out for the way we look, if we are wearing baggy pants. Then they pat us down. That's not OK."
The suit alleges that adult males have searched and patted down female students in violation of state law and school policy. Officials are supposed to detect metal guns by using electronic wands that pass over the student without touching them.
"We think safety is important at schools, but you have to do it in a way that respects students' rights," says Mr. Tan.
Tan, DeKoven, and others have questioned whether the school's alleged behavior has a racial-profiling component. LAUSD has more than 120 high schools, but the complaints over random searches have only occurred at Locke, located in the primarily black and Hispanic district of Watts.
"If you look at school shootings, they are increasing at schools everywhere, not just inner-city schools like Locke," says DeKoven. "So there is the possibility that an overzealous crackdown there smacks of racial profiling."
Critics also note that the 8-year-old policy of random searches has failed to turn up a single gun, further indicting what they call the arbitrary nature of the searches. (The guns that have been recovered were found in ways other than random searches.) These critics also note that if students really want to get a gun into school, they can do so by ways other than carrying - such as tossing a weapon over fence perimeters to waiting friends or accomplices.
But school officials say there must be some method of deterrence. LAUSD Superintendent Roy Romer has told reporters, "I think it's a minimal way of maintaining safety. I do not want to create an atmosphere where we have metal detectors at every door, but I know we have to have some minimal amount of security."
Legal observers say they will be watching the case to see what clarifications it might provide. "There is ambiguity nationally, because this is a very complex area of law and there is much disagreement in the federal circuit courts," says DeKoven.
Some cases have dealt with searches only of students who are late to school, while other courts have dealt with athletes. Still others have treated more severe measures that schools say they need to cope with special problems concerning drugs.
"I think this will be a no-brainer on whether or not this is a direct violation of the 1985 law," says DeKoven. "It will be the fallout for these other cases that will be important to watch."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor