It’s Thursday morning and a line of students snakes out of the door of an English classroom and into the breezeway of a South Los Angeles high school. Their backpacks have been dumped on the ground and wrenched open, notebooks spilling out underfoot as school security personnel pace around the students barking out orders. A “random” mandatory search has begun, and students mill about agitatedly, rousted from instruction for a virtual “perp” roundup that wouldn’t be out of place on an A&E reality cop show.
This is the not so new normal in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the nation and one of the few to conduct so-called random mandatory searches on its campuses. Implemented in 2015, the policy requires wand and metal detector searches of students on all LAUSD secondary campuses (including charter schools and span schools that have students in the 6th-12th grades). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the use of random searches in schools declined from 7% in 2000 to 4% in 2014. Bucking this trend, the LAUSD stubbornly clings to searches as its police apparatus has ballooned out of control. In a recent UCLA study, the majority of the district’s college counselors reported that they have insufficient time with students. As a result, students often receive less college assistance than they need. The study also reaffirmed that college-preparedness, college-going and completion rates among Black and Latinx students consistently lagged behind that of white and Asian students. Thus, while students of color fight for quality time with the few programming counselors and college counselors there are, school police at South and East Los Angeles LAUSD campuses are in full force, patrolling school grounds and harassing students for minor dress code violations that disproportionately target Black and Latinx youth.
Nationwide, the pervasiveness of police on school campuses has become a touchstone for student- teacher activism and coalition-building. Outraged by the increasing criminalization of LAUSD youth, the city-wide Students Deserve (SD) coalition has brought together a broad cross-section of students, teachers, parents, activists (including Youth Justice Coalition and Black Lives Matter L.A.) and civil rights groups to challenge the District’s overemphasis on suppression at the expense of funding for counselors, support resources, ethnic studies and culturally responsive education. As SD staff organizer Maricela Lopez notes, a big part of that battle is engaging parents who may believe that searches are a lesser evil. Ultimately, she says, the question becomes, “Who are you the parent of? Are you the parent of a young Black student that’s being targeted the most? These searches are not random and they’re happening to a specific group of students.”
Dorsey High School senior and SD member Tayah Hubbard has experienced the searches firsthand and feels that they undermine her pursuit of a quality education. Last spring, Hubbard took part in a demonstration at the LAUSD School Board in which hundreds of students criticized the impact of searches on the climate of their schools. As she notes, “Police take away Sharpies and highlighters and white out on the grounds that people will tag but there isn’t any tagging.” She also maintains that “Black girls are targeted for wearing scarves or head wraps.” She has personally been told that she would be given detention for doing so, and believes that Black girls are unfairly singled out for not conforming to school policies that penalize them for their body types and cultural traditions.
Sexist, racist and homophobic targeting and harassment of African American girls in schools has been well documented. Nationwide, African American girls have some of the highest rates of suspension and expulsion next to Black boys and are six times more likely than white girls to receive harsh discipline. Compounding matters, Black girls are more likely to experience a high level of “interpersonal violence” from peers, family and community members. Indeed, according to the African American Policy (AAPF) Institute, “In environments in which discipline is emphasized over counseling, girls who struggle with trauma and other unmet needs may come to the attention of school personnel only when their behavior leads to punishable offenses”. Here, climates with harsh discipline dissuade Black girls from coming to school and may even “exacerbate the vulnerability of girls to harassing behavior because it penalizes them for defending themselves against such acts”.
Although District policy states that “No student or persons shall be selected to be searched based solely upon their gender, race, ethnicity, physical appearance, manner of dress, or association with any particular group of persons” the practice of singling out Black girls for wearing head wraps and scarves belies this. Moreover, Black female students in the LAUSD have reported that they receive more scrutiny and discipline for wearing clothes that are considered to be too “tight” or “revealing”. Gardena High School Women’s Leadership Project students Zorrie Petrus and Kendra Taylor reported that boys are seldom called out for wearing ripped jeans to school but girls are frequently hauled into the dean’s office. This pattern of selective discipline is evidenced in other school districts where Black female students have been singled out and harassed for wearing braided hairstyles, locks and natural hair.
Dorsey High English teacher Ashunda Norris echoes Hubbard’s concern about race and gender disparities. Norris first encountered the search policy when she was giving her students a test. School police came into her classroom and made students put their hands on their desks. This invasive experience motivated Norris and colleague Sharonne Hapuarachy to become get involved with Students Deserve. Hapuarachy, a twenty year English teacher, said that the random search experience “was really frightening. They don’t tell teachers ahead of time. It was very destructive and it was hard to refocus and move on.”
Students Deserve is calling for an end to all searches, in addition to a pilot study which would evaluate schools that have successfully implemented restorative justice initiatives toward the broader goal of transformative justice (which focuses on dismantling the structures of oppression and inequity that perpetuate community violence). Restorative justice is a holistic approach to discipline that relies upon relationship-building, community-building and dialogue rather than referrals, detention and suspension. Victims and perpetrators engage in a collective process in which they publicly address the impact of harmful acts on both the victim and the community at large. Restorative justice is designed to allow school-communities to devise culturally responsive solutions that redress the criminalizing outcomes of zero tolerance policies. Some teachers and other critics argue that it is a palliative approach that has been poorly implemented in a district reeling from the consequences of coddling disruptive students. Some point to the District’s ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” (a charge that was disproportionately used to target and discipline Black students) as leading to classrooms where “anything goes”. The LAUSD was the first major urban district to end willful defiance suspensions after years of community agitation. Yet, although the number of suspensions has dropped in the district, African American students are still disproportionatelysuspended and culturally responsive alternatives to punitive discipline have not been widely adopted.
Indeed, the district’s support for restorative justice programming has been piecemeal. Over the past several years it has been slow to fund restorative justice counselors, only increasing the number of positions from five to twenty five as a result of community pressure. Dorsey High’s Sharonne Hapuarachy noted that although her school “had a restorative justice counselor [coverage] wasn’t consistent and staff as a whole hadn’t bought into the practice”. One former LAUSD restorative justice professional I spoke to said that, “As soon as a school is doing well [with implementing restorative justice] it seems that the funding is gone. I was only able to do a limited amount of trainings because there was not a commitment. Restorative justice is about institutionalizing a culture of caring and consistent affirmation of students’ backgrounds and cultural knowledge. But veteran teachers may subscribe to a punitive mindset, and it’s difficult to convince some that restorative justice is worthwhile.”
The majority of the district’s high schools do not have restorative justice counselors. And the overall LAUSD budget for restorative justice is around $10.8 million.
By contrast, the district has allocated millions more to school police, weaponry and surveillance systems. In 2016, the school board approved a 14% increase in funding for police, bringing its pot to $67 million. According to the L.A. Schools Report, the increases were due to “salary, healthcare benefits and pension payments”. Nonetheless, the district claims to be dedicated to a full rollout of restorative justice programming by the 2019-2020 school year. Pushback from local schools highlights both the inadequacy of the district’s outreach efforts and the tenuousness of its stated long term goal. In the meantime, Students Deserve is pressuring the seven-member school board and Superintendent Michelle King to stop criminalizing students and make good on the lip service they’ve given to restorative justice, culturally responsive education, and college prep opportunities. In a region that has the largest juvenile incarcerated population in the nation, the district’s complicity in upholding state violence can no longer be ignored.