The High Cost of Random Student Searches

random student searches

(AP Photo/The Mountain Press, Curt Habraken)

Random student searches “… are not random,” wrote Los Angeles high school senior Grace Hamilton in October.

In her Advanced Placement classes, Hamilton isn’t searched for weapons. But in her regular classes, which are attended mostly by Latino students, she is. And, in meetings with students from all over the city, Hamilton has heard that Black students also are targeted with more frequency, as are Muslim students.

Although L.A. school officials may contend that random searches make their schools safer, “the only purpose these ‘random’ searches serve is to criminalize, traumatize, and degrade racial and ethnic groups in schools,” writes Hamilton, a leader of L.A. Students Deserve, a grassroots organization of parents, students and educators who seek to end the Los Angeles Unified School District policy that, since 2011, has required teachers and education support professionals to do daily random metal-detector wand searches on students in every L.A. middle and high school.

In May, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other community organizations in calling on school officials to put in place an immediate moratorium on its random search policy. The policy runs counter to educators’ goals around positive learning environments, they said.

“Our concern is that so-called ‘random wanding’ alienates students, discourages them from attending school, creates a negative environment that undermines trust and respect, runs counter to restorative justice practices, and effectively treats children as young as 10 years old as criminal suspects,” they wrote.

These kinds of searches, while legal, may be among the practices that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately sends Black and Latino students, both boys and girls, as well as students with disabilities, into the criminal justice system. (Join thousands of NEA educators in signing the NEA pledge to end the school-to-prison pipeline.)

In their letter to Los Angeles School Board President Steve Zimmer, L.A. educators encouraged school officials to focus instead on restorative practices, which have been shown to help students feel more respected and empowered, and to support a positive school climate. The district also should hire more school counselors and community intervention workers, they said.

Restorative approaches is an approach that NEA strongly supports, and is actively working to sow in schools across the U.S. Check out NEA’s guide for educators around restorative practices, and read more about how teachers have put them into place.

About  4 percent of U.S schools used random metal-detector searches in 2014, down from 7 percent in 2000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A much more common tactic is drug-sniffing dog searches—57 percent of high schools did this in 2014, according to NCES. The most common strategies—and ones that can be equally applied to every student, and therefore avoid bias or racism—are controlled access to schools and security monitors (about 90 percent.)

In October, a researcher from the UCLA Civil Rights Project presented to the L.A. school board on the results of the “random” metal-detector searches in L.A. schools. After reviewing two years of logbooks, researcher Amir Whitaker found that weapons were discovered in 0.5 percent of searches, L.A. Weekly reported.

No guns were found, Whitaker reported.