LA Students Push to End Criminalization of Black and Brown Youth

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest public-school system in the nation. Its teachers made headlines in January when they launched a six-day strike that advanced an alternative model of “community schools.” This model treats students like whole and complete human beings by requiring an end to a dehumanizing “random search” policy. Twenty-eight LAUSD schools will serve as pilots as part of the strike settlement.

The demand to end the searches did not begin with teachers, however. It began with the students who have made this a hallmark of student activism for the last several years. On June 18, the students – and the teachers, parents, and community that support them – won the demand to end random searches in all LAUSD schools. Students describe the random search policy that the LAUSD practices as one of the most humiliating and degrading experiences at school. “They pull us out of class and make us feel like criminals… The first time it happened to me I was 11. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t,” Amara A., now a 7th grader, revealed to The North Star. She has been searched four times in total. Each day, the district requires every middle and high school in its jurisdiction to conduct at least one search. This means that school administrators select a classroom, identify about five students “at random,” direct them to grab their belongings, bring them into the hallway, and search their person and belongings for “contraband.” Leaders employed this policy under the guise of school safety and most would assume that administrators are searching for drugs and weapons.

However, the list of prohibited items also included: white-out, highlighters, markers, hand sanitizer, perfume, fingernail polish, medicine (including asthma inhalers and other time-sensitive prescriptions), and other school supplies and hygiene products. Muslim girls describe being violated, searched beneath their hijabs. “As a Muslim, Brown, and hijabi girl… I am always ‘randomly’ checked… at airports, stores, even among my peers. I need my school to be different and only focus on my academics. Random searches make me feel attacked. They make me feel unsafe, unwanted, and untrusted,” Faiza Meah, a tenth-grader at an LAUSD high school, told The North Star. Administrators line up Black boys in front of non-Black peers, entrenching stereotypes of Black male criminality. “I felt criminalized… These random searches are supposedly anonymous, but once the faculty eyed me down, I knew that I was being profiled. They proceeded to select only minorities and searched us like criminals, disregarding the fact that we were only students,” recalls Ahmad Diop, a rising high school junior, who has been searched multiple times. All of those searched lose class time and return to class under the weight of a trauma they are expected to endure and plow through.

Under the policy, school officials, in whom students are supposed to have a level of trust, pull children as young as 10 years old (entering 6th graders) and treat them like suspects.

In fact, there is no such thing as a non-blind “random” search. Searches occur with greater rigor at schools that have larger Black and Latinx populations. Within those schools, searches almost never happen in Advanced Placement classes. Among students selected for search, there is a significant over-representation of Black and Muslim students. Perhaps most significantly, an ACLU study reveals that in three years of random searches, only .08 percent of them returned “weapons” of any kind, and officials did not find a single gun. The majority of the items confiscated were school supplies and hygiene products. Yet the impact on students is deep and traumatic. Five years ago, the Students Not Suspects coalition identified ending the criminalization of youth in LAUSD schools as a top priority. In 2016, young people from the Schools LA Students Deserve and Black Lives Matter-Youth Vanguard, supported by UTLA and Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles held their first public forum at Dorsey High School in South Los Angeles. More than 1000 people overflowed from the auditorium as students recounted experiences with school police and called for an end to LAUSD’s random search policy. Students carried their call forward to the School Board; the seven-member board opposed abandoning the policy. The board’s sole Black member, Dr. George McKenna, rejected data and testimony for problematic tropes about (Black) youth and criminality. The BET Television series “Finding Justice” documents Dr. McKenna’s emotional and irrational attachment to random search policies, and the show also features many of the youth leaders and community organizers who are a part of the coalition.

For three years, student organizers – with teachers, parents, and community support – worked tirelessly to end the random search policy.

Student leaders like Marshe Doss, Justin Scott, Neelima Hossein, Tayah Hubbard, Jamelah Lewis, and Jahlani Holloway convened weekly meetings at Dorsey High School and with students District-wide to plan mass actions and forums, launch button campaigns, initiate social media pushes, and even disrupt a thousand-dollar-a-plate private fundraiser for billionaire LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner. Doss and dozens of her peers throughout greater Los Angeles spent their entire high school tenures as not simply students, but also as organizers committed to making public schools an educational space where students, especially Black students, could deepen themselves intellectually instead of filling the school-to-prison pipeline.On June 18, 2019, after significant pressure, including protests outside her home and just a few months after announcing her City Council bid, School Board President Monica Garcia’s motion to end random searches in all LAUSD schools passed with a 4-3 vote. Students, parents, teachers, and community members packed the Board Room and spilled out onto the streets. Black Lives Matter organizer and the mother of a son who attends a Los Angeles public high school, Jan Williams testified, “As a mother raising a Black son, in this country where being Black is perceived as a threat and criminalized by so many… it is vital that the School Board vote to end the harmful policy of random searches.” The vote affirmed years of work: “I feel very ecstatic and grateful to know that my sister will start the 6th grade without ever having to be searched.”

The tremendous victory is just a start, however. 15-year-old Black Lives Matter-Youth Vanguard co-founder Thandiwe Abdullah commented to The North Star, “Ending random searches doesn’t fix institutionalized racism or dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, but what it does is give us hope and confirmation that we’re headed in the right direction and we can win more.”

About the Author

Melina Abdullah is professor and chair of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles. She was appointed to the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission in 2014 and is a recognized expert on race, gender, class, and social movements. Abdullah is the author of numerous articles and book chapters, with subjects ranging from political coalition building to womanist mothering.