'Random' searches criminalize students and don’t make schools safer

Above, Op-Ed by Grace Hamilton Marshall High School student and Students Deserve Leader.

Dozens of times a day, school deans and security walk into LAUSD classrooms and pick out five students to conduct a “random” search. They take us out of class and into the hallway where they go through our belongings. We are told they are searching us for weapons, but they frequently take our classroom supplies, like white-out and highlighters. This is a random search … except they are not random. My name is Grace Hamilton, and as a senior at John Marshall Senior High, I am against “random” searches.

In my School for Advanced Studies classes, I don’t get searched for weapons during class time. But in my regular classes, which consist of mostly Latino students, that’s where I’ve been searched. At Marshall, non-magnet and non-honors classes get searched more often.

“Random” searches are not random. I meet regularly with students from over 15 schools involved in my organization, Students Deserve, the student-led grassroots organization leading the fight to end searches. Students at Dorsey High School, a predominantly black school, get searched more than any other school I talk with. This goes along with all the evidence that says schools with black students face more searches, more policing, more criminalization. 

Muslim students are also targeted for searches based on stereotypes that make them out to be dangerous.

The only purpose these “random” searches serve is to criminalize, traumatize, and degrade racial and ethnic groups in schools.

The justification behind searches is that they protect students, teachers, and administrators by keeping weapons and violence out of schools. But less than 4% of schools in America conduct searches. Most districts have figured out that schools that conduct searches are no safer than those that don’t. Blacks and Latinos are blamed for the school shootings that happen, when 90% of elementary and high school shootings were done by mostly upper-middle class white Americans. 

There is no evidence that searches keep weapons and violence out of schools, but there is evidence of mistrust between students and administrators because of them. This distrust prevents students from speaking in confidence about weapons on campus and working with them to deal with peer conflict. They lower the self-esteem of those targeted and make them feel as if they’ve done something wrong, when really the policy is wrong. 

Students Deserve is a grassroots coalition made up of LAUSD parents, teachers, and students. We have teamed up with groups such as Black Lives Matter, Youth Justice Coalition, and the American Civil Liberties Union to end these searches. Since last year, we have had two major events, including Making Black Lives Matter in Our Schools at Dorsey High School and our End Random Searches rally at the school board in May. We’ve also met with various school board members, including Ref Rodriguez, Monica Garcia, and Kelly Gonez.

The school board is holding a meeting on October 24 entirely devoted to the issues of searches. Ahead of that meeting, this week we are handing out “Against Random Searches” buttons and informational flyers to students across dozens of schools. We aim to start a conversation about the random searches at the schools. Through these actions, we are letting LAUSD know that we reject both the current policy of random searches during class time and any proposal of searching us as we enter school grounds.

Our immediate solution for this semester is to end these searches, expand safe passage programs, and ensure there are counselors available.

Our medium-term solution is to fund real Community Schools, which includes lowering class size, more counselors, more arts and electives, real restorative justice, and wraparound services like school health clinics, therapists, and more. The Asian-Pacific Health Center we have at Marshall is extremely helpful to all students. They do everything from giving shots to doing physicals and STI tests.

LAUSD needs to end the current random search policy in order to stop criminalization in schools and replace it with conditions that will help all students feel genuinely safe.