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For some, random school searches are small price to pay for safety

Within the next few weeks, Anahit Topachikyan could be randomly searched at school.

The Liberty High School junior, who has never been written up for a violation, would be just as likely to be pulled aside and searched as a student with a violent past under a new Clark County School District policy aimed at reducing the number of weapons on campus.

The decision to randomly search students using handheld metal detectors comes amid an alarming jump in the number of guns confiscated from students: 11 through last week, compared with five at the same time last year. It also follows the fatal shooting of a Canyon Springs High School student in September.

The crackdown has sparked debate among parents, students and educators over the proper balance between privacy and safety.

Many have even questioned whether the move is legal — and whether the searches will be truly random.

“How do you know who to randomly search?” asked Clifton Berry, a parent of two students. “Who’s choosing? Is it every third student? Is it every fourth student? Is it the at-risk children?”

But Topachikyan has the Parkland, Florida, shooting in the back of her mind. She even stayed home from school following a threat against Liberty High in September.

She is fine with the initiative.

“Obviously, the whole invasion of privacy thing would always be a problem to some people,” she said. “But I mean, privacy over safety doesn’t exactly seem like a good option.”

Legal background

Officials announced last week that students at all middle and high schools may be randomly searched by administrators using handheld metal detectors several times a week. A computer program will randomly generate the name of a school and a corresponding classroom number to be searched.

Students may also be randomly searched as they enter the selected school in a single-file line, dictated by a number that the program will also generate. If the number that day is five, for example, every fifth student who enters campus would be searched, according to the district.

A collection of court cases from across the country validates such searches despite the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, according to an analysis provided by the National Association of School Resource Officers.

That includes random searches and searches using walk-through metal detectors, said D.J. Schoeff, the association’s first vice president.

“The stance that the courts have in a lot of these issues (has) really been about … protecting the school environment, where we know that guns and knives are a danger to our students inside a school environment,” he said.

In Clark County, the school district is relying on previous court decisions to justify the need for searches without reasonable suspicion in certain cases.

“We must weigh the need to take action versus the potential intrusion of privacy,” spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said in a statement. “The 11 firearms confiscated from students so far this year creates an urgent enough situation to allow for the type of search that will be implemented.”

Students must consent to be searched, although those who do not will be subject to school discipline “just as if they violate other school procedures,” she said.

“We will work with the community to be open about our procedures so they feel confident that the searches are random,” Searer said. “Our efforts will continue to focus on maintaining a safe learning and working environment.”

School district police created the computer program that will randomly select schools, she said.

Lessons from California

In creating the new initiative, the district referenced a similar policy in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which requires secondary schools to conduct daily random metal detector searches.

That policy has drawn strong opposition from the local American Civil Liberties Union, which has been pushing for an end to the practice.

“We really see schools as spaces that should be safe, supportive and welcoming spaces for students to learn,” said Ana Mendoza, a staff attorney for the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. “We think that policies like LA’s policy, and potentially Clark County’s policy, erode that kind of spirit and goal that we have for schools.”

The organization is part of a broader coalition, #StudentsNotSuspects, that published a study in June that reported that no guns were recovered in 2013-14 and 2014-15 as a result of random searches at district schools. Other types of weapons were found through such searches at 58 of the roughly 200 secondary schools, according to the report.

Another report in August by the city attorney’s office based on the district’s internal audits found that the policy had not been effective in recovering weapons.

Part of the problem may be insufficient funding. A 2014 audit of middle and high schools found that 38 percent did not have the required number of metal detector wands to carry out the searches, resulting in fewer searches than the policy required, according to the report.

It noted that the Los Angeles district would start a pilot program this fall to reduce the frequency of searches to 10 days per month. A district representative did not provide further information on the policy.

Mixed opinions

Berry, the Clark County parent, said he fears that the initiative at Las Vegas Valley school may just open up more problems, particularly with racial tensions.

He instead argues for a zero-tolerance policy for weapons found at school, one that would expel students on the first offense. Parents, he said, need to be held accountable for their children.

“The educators of today, (we) parents, we need to realize that that’s what they are,” he said. “Their job is to educate. … As parents, our job is to be parents.”

But Topachikyan, the Liberty High School student, said she supports the initiative because there is obviously an issue with people bringing weapons to school.

She also noted that students are already subject to search, and a sign at the entrance to Liberty reminds students of that.

And even though police deemed the threat against her school in September not credible, the incident raised her level of concern.

“I honestly thought that no one at my school would do something like that until that happened,” she said. “But I mean, there was always that fear in the back of my mind that something would happen, ever since the shooting in Florida.”

Contact Amelia Pak-Harvey at apak-harvey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4630. Follow @AmeliaPakHarvey on Twitter.

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