Teach and Frisk

by Leighton Woodhouse


At the front of the one-classroom schoolhouse in the Mar Vista Gardens housing project in Culver City, California, a handful of high school students and their teacher sit in a circle and participate in small group discussion. Behind them, a dozen or so students who have opted to engage in independent study work silently at their desks. The volume of the class rarely rises above the level of a friendly dinner table conversation.

Affluent families all over the country pay upwards of thirty-thousand dollars a year in private school tuition for settings like this. But this classroom, where students learn about astronomical research in Antarctica from a visiting CalTech scientist, tend to an organic vegetable garden, and practice non-violent conflict resolution, is part of Central High, a Los Angeles Unified School District alternative school for would-be dropouts, which operates out of sixteen sites from San Pedro to North Hollywood.

Yet the man running this class, a forty-two-year-old former public interest lawyer named Vitaly, may be on the brink of being fired. For the last four years, he has refused to conduct mandatory in-class weapons searches of his students — which the district argues keeps classrooms safe — because he believes that the policy is unethical and would destroy everything that makes his classroom successful.

Last year, when two rival cliques emerged among the girls in the class, Vitaly set the regular curriculum aside for two weeks, guided the students through discussions about their feelings, cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity, and what it means to be supportive of one another. “What Vitaly has created in his classroom is one of probably two or three examples of real restorative justice that I’ve seen in my whole career,” Steve Zimmer, the school board member who represents the district that includes Mar Vista Gardens, told me. “It is not a classroom based on power. It is a classroom based on co-existing interdependency.”

Born in Soviet Ukraine, Vitaly immigrated to the United States in the late seventies and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. (An immigration officer mangled his birth name when he was a child; as an adult, he has opted to be mononymous.) As a lawyer, he founded a campus-based legal access project for LGBTQ youth in San Francisco which remains in operation today. He grew disillusioned with the law as a vehicle for social change — “as an attorney, you’re really just putting Band-aids on gunshot wounds,” he says — and decided he could make more of an impact as an educator. When Central High administrators invited him to join their faculty, they allowed him to essentially write his own job description, and Vitaly has since largely taught youth of color, queer students and homeless kids.

Nationally, poor kids of color — the student population Vitaly’s class is drawn from — are disciplined by school administrators at a higher rate than their white, middle-class counterparts for comparable behavior, beginning as early as preschool. (In fact, the racial disparity holds true even when controlling for income level.) Racial bias is a factor, as is the zero-tolerance ethos adopted by many low-income schools. One of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, based in Texas in 2011, determined that when a student is suspended or expelled, his or her likelihood of becoming involved with the juvenile justice system the next school year nearly triples. Findings like this suggest that an over-reliance on punishment in low-income schools actually promotes future criminal behavior among poor youth of color.

Opponents of LAUSD’s mandatory weapons search policy see it as an outgrowth of this punitive regime. Victor Leung, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, which has called for either reform or elimination of the rule, told me that it “hurts school morale and undermines the relationship between students and educators. It also contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline by making students feel like criminals.”

The LAUSD has required random daily metal detector searches since 1993, but for years, enforcement of the policy was not a high priority. That changed in 2011, after two kids were shot at Gardena High. A special education student who feared for his safety on the walk to and from campus brought a loaded Beretta handgun to school in his backpack. When he set the bag down on a table in class, the pistol went off; a single bullet struck a fifteen-year-old boy in the neck, then hit a fifteen-year-old girl in the head. One of the victims sued the school district, arguing that it endangered students by failing to enforce its search policy.

Sometime that year, according to Vitaly, Central High School’s principal announced that teachers would be required to perform routine random searches of students, using metal detector wands. Earl Perkins, an assistant superintendent for the district, described the standard search procedure to me this way: A group of three or four specially trained administrators enter a classroom and select students from the roster at random — by, for instance, throwing a die, or choosing every third name on the list. They lead students into a separate room, go through their bags, and scan their bodies with a metal detector wand. “Teachers do not do the metal detections,” Perkins said.

Central High’s Mar Vista Gardens classroom is an exception to that rule. As the only certified district staff member on site, Vitaly has been directed repeatedly to personally carry out the searches, and he has consistently refused. “I didn’t sign up to be a prison guard, I didn’t sign up to be a police officer,” he says. “I signed up — I thought — to be an educator.” After refusing to comply with the order during the 2011 school year, Vitaly was offered a compromise: His direct supervisor, Janine Antoine, would carry out the searches in his classroom, with the assistance of a tutor. For the next two or three months of 2012, and again for a few months the following year, Antoine performed the periodic searches. The experience was unpleasant for everyone, including Antoine, Vitaly recalls. “Personally, it made me quite anxious,” Jessica Fassinger, a former student of Vitaly’s who was searched at that time, told me. “There were a few people who were angry about it. At that point I was a little bit scared.”

At the start of the current school year, when Antoine told Vitaly that she no longer had time to conduct the searches, and that he would have to begin doing them himself, he refused again. “What concerns me is that you’re teaching your students that they shouldn’t have to expect to be searched,” Vitaly remembers Assistant Principal Gary Martinez telling him. “When they go to court, they have to be searched. Every time they’re stopped by the police, they’re going to have to be searched.” (Martinez declined to be interviewed.)

Valeria Del Campo, one of Vitaly’s current students, remembers being searched when she was enrolled at Venice High. “I had a lot of private stuff that I would carry around with me,” she says. “And it was just being emptied out for everyone to see. That made me feel kind of like a criminal.” She’s convinced the kids weren’t being selected at random. She recalls that it was typically the classroom teacher who picked which kids would be searched, not a roll of a die by an impartial school administrator, and the selections fit a profile. “It was never a student who sat in a front row seat that would always do their work. And it was majority Latino students and African American.” White students were “never picked,” she claims.

Perkins insists that the process for selecting which classrooms and students to search is random, and that the data reflect it. Each year, he told me, he pulls about six weeks’ worth of search logs from a sample of schools to analyze how they implement the policy. The records, he says, show the searches are being conducted at random in a non-discriminatory manner. A student in an AP classroom, a special education classroom, and a gifted magnet classroom are “all treated the same way.”

When I reviewed six months’ worth of search logs from a sample of sixteen LAUSD secondary schools, I found that while the frequency of searches varied widely from school to school, there was no pattern indicating that searches were more common at low-income schools than at middle-income schools. (There was no way to measure racial profiling or discriminatory enforcement within a school from the data available in the search logs, however, nor is it clear how accurate or complete the search logs are.)

Zimmer, the school board member, believes that the policy is “highly problematic.” He also believes it serves a purpose. “The act itself is a dehumanizing experience,” he says. “It is antithetical to the type of school communities that we are trying to create.” Still, he believes that most students want weapon searches: “Kids want to feel safe.”

In a three-page letter to three Central High administrators, Vitaly conceded that the search policy might be necessary at more dangerous schools, but that in his classroom, it was demonstrably unneeded. He argued that “equity does not mean treating everyone the same,” and that policies “must be customized to fit the circumstances and climates of our respective campuses.”

But when it comes to due process, treating everyone the same is, in fact, precisely what equity means. “I agree with Vitaly — about his classroom,” Zimmer says. But as a matter of basic fairness, Zimmer insists, the search policy must be applied to every one of LAUSD’s six hundred and fifty thousand students on an equal basis.

In any case, Zimmer believes that metal detector searches do not have a long future at LAUSD. In 2013, the district adopted a “School Climate Bill of Rights” aimed at diverting students away from “zero tolerance” disciplinary measures such as arrests, suspensions and expulsions and toward counseling. The resolution included a commitment to “restorative justice,” which the school district describes as “a philosophy and an approach to discipline that moves away from punishment” and that regards students who misbehave as engaged members of a community rather than as problems to be managed by adults. In a memo to LAUSD principals, Earl Perkins described the new approach as a “paradigm shift.”

Zimmer regards Vitaly’s classroom as a pinnacle of the district’s new philosophy, even though it directly conflicts with randomized weapons searches. “I don’t think that this policy has a permanent half-life,” Zimmer says of the metal detector searches. “I think we’re going to be in a place where we’re going to reconsider this policy in the coming years. Maybe sooner than we think.”

Vitaly hopes that he will still have a job when that moment arrives.

Photo by Christopher Webb