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How a shooting at LAUSD's middle school fits into a bigger debate about the district's security policy

Los Angeles School Police Chief Steve Zipperman addresses reporters during a press conference following a gun incident at Sal Castro Middle School in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Los Angeles School Police Chief Steve Zipperman addresses reporters during a press conference following a gun incident at Sal Castro Middle School in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood.

On the morning of Jan. 21, 1993, Alan Warhaftig was teaching a math class at Fairfax High School.

"Then, a P.A. announcement came over," recalls the longtime teacher and administrator, now retired. "And I could tell from the principal's voice that something serious had happened."

In another classroom, a ninth grader had been handling a .357 magnum in his backpack — he'd swiped it from his grandparents' closet because he was afraid of bullies on the bus — when he unintentionally set the gun off.

A bullet from that gun traveled through a student sitting nearby, traveled clear across the room, and struck 16-year-old Demetrius Rice in the chest. "He was gone almost immidiately," Warhaftig said.

The circumstances of Rice's death 25 years ago are eerily similar to the incident in a classroom at Salvador Castro Middle School on Thursday. Police are still determining why a 12-year-old Castro student had a semi-automatic weapon in her backpack that morning. The gun accidentally went off from inside the backpack, wounding two 15-year-old students.

The L.A. County District Attorney's Office announced two felony charges against the 12-year-old on Friday afternoon: one for being a minor in possession of a firearm and another for bringing a weapon onto school grounds.

Thursday's incident has shined a fresh light on the policies Los Angeles Unified School District officials have instituted to keep weapons and drugs off the city's campuses — policies that have their origins in Rice's death 25 years ago.

In 1993, following Rice's death and the death of a second student, Michael Ensley, at Reseda High School just one month later, district officials began directing administrators at every middle and high school to search students, randomly and daily, for weapons, drugs or other contraband. This policy requiring random searches, in one form or another, has been in place ever since.

In recent years, though, civil rights organizations, community activists and even L.A.'s main teachers union have publicly pressured the district to abandon the policy. They've formed a coalition, "#StudentsNotSuspects," arguing the random searches only rarely find weapons, but often humiliate students and cause them to fear educators they should trust.

The organizers behind this coalition are aware Thursday's gun incident at Castro creates an optical problem for their cause.

"Unfortunately, I think people are impacted greatly by what they hear on the news," said Kim McGill, an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition — one of the organizations that has actively opposed L.A. Unified's search policies.

"I think the assumption is because we don’t want the search policy, therefore, we’re condoning or being naïve to the violence," McGill said, "but … even though it may seem like a good idea to have random searches, we know from experience that that actually erodes trust between students and school staff."

But L.A. School Police officers say random searches are a tool they need to create safe places for children to learn.

“When you’re on campus, it’s supposed to be an oasis," said the head of the school police officers' union, Gil Gamez. "Once you can feel safe, then the learning process can start. It’s very hard to keep children safe especially when individuals are trying to take our tools away from us."

Under the policy, principals or deans at every L.A. Unified secondary school must, every day, conduct a search of randomly selected students.

As L.A. School Police Chief Steve Zipperman explained to KPCC's Take Two, administrators randomly select a classroom and search it "at a random time … it’s not the same time every day." 

Within that classroom, the policy requires administrators pre-determine a method for randomly selecting students. "They may choose every third student, every fourth student," Zipperman explained.

Administrators remove the students from class, scan them with a metal detector wand, and sometimes pat them down or search their belongings.

School police officers are not allowed to conduct the searches themselves, but they may be present — and officers say they have seen evidence that the policy deters students from bringing weapons to campus.

Before L.A. Unified enacted the policy, Zipperman said school police would recover around 1,000 weapons from school district campuses every year — most of them knives. Now, school police uncover closer to 400 weapons each year; about 20 of the recovered weapons were guns.

But police found nearly all of these weapons through their own work. The random searches? They're another story.

Researchers with UCLA's Civil Rights Project recently published an analysis of more than 34,000 random student searches L.A. Unified administrators conducted between 2013 and 2015.

They found the district's random searches turned up very few weapons. Of more than 2,200 items confiscated during those two school years, administrators found 76 weapons, the study found.

Of those 76 weapons, 33 were knives. Roughly one-third of those knives were "utility, tool, small pocket or 'butter' knives," the researchers reported — and none of the recovered weapons were guns.

"Most of what was uncovered," said Amir Whitaker, who led the review, "and what was logged as contraband, would constitute school supplies and art supplies." Administrators confiscated more than 1,200 markers and other school supplies, the UCLA review found.

Whitaker, now a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said the review found administrators confiscated tobacco 44 times and illegal drugs 56 times during random searches. Most of the illegal drugs seized, he noted, were marijuana.

But these numbers are small compared to the numbers of searches Whitaker estimates L.A. Unified staff conducted during the two school years he studied: more than 380,000 searches.

Zipperman said the small number of weapon and drug confiscations shows the policy is an effective deterrent.

"Students realize," he said, "that there is a likelihood that on any given time on any given day, they can be searched."

But McGill contended this "deterrent" is poisonous to the relationships between students and staff that actually prevents violence.

"Students feel comfortable and trusting in being able to bring those issues up," she explained, saying staff can only act to correct problems if they know they exist.

Whitaker also said the UCLA data analysis also noted 42 instances in which at least two-dozen students were searched at once — which far exceeds the number of students who would be randomly selected from the average single classroom, and leads Whitaker to suspect a handful of administrators are abusing the policy.

But even when the policy is correctly followed, McGill said young people regularly tell her, "'I’ve never done anything. I’ve never been arrested. I’m not someone who people should fear, and yet when I’m been pulled out of class, when I’m searched, when I’m patted down, that’s traumatic. It makes me feel uncomfortable. And it’s embarrassing to endure that in front of school staff and other students.'"

Undergirding the coalition's arguments against is the belief that the random search policy disproportionately harms students of color. Most students in L.A. Unified are black or Latino; many grew up in communities where distrust of the police runs deep.

But the school police union's Gamez said random searches searches often result in students getting badly-needed help.

Administrators, he said, "don’t do the searches to try to criminalize [students]. They do the searches to try to help them."