In their first meeting since the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the Volusia County School Board wrestled with personal rights and the safety of children.
The matter arose during a series of policy updates, spurred by an August 2021 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.
The agreement came about after the Justice Department found there was merit in allegations that Volusia County students with disabilities had been improperly disciplined and excluded from school programs and services.
Most of the 12 policy updates were directly related to negotiations with the DOJ, and adjusted language clarifying the rights of students with disabilities in a variety of fields.
One change, however, was at the request of school resource officers, who wanted new language included regarding searches of bags of visitors to campus.
“All visitors to Volusia County School sites or events are on notice that searches may be conducted at random and without cause by the site administrator. Furthermore, the use of an electronic device may be utilized to assist with the search,” a draft of the policy read.
As has become common, School Board meetings can become a major battleground for the personal freedom of adults.
“Not only do these amendments include random searches of students, they also include an extra layer of tyranny with adding random searches without cause for everyone,” Jennifer Kelly, of the group Moms for Liberty, said.
Although there is already language that states that all bags are subject to search, the added language was problematic for some board members.
“I don’t know that I want to put our site administrators in the position to search a visitor, especially without cause,” School Board Chairman Ruben Colón said. “That we would say that we’re just gonna do random searches without cause — I have a problem with that.”
The matter consumed the majority of a two-and-a-half hour workshop on the policy amendments, and another hour at the regularly scheduled meeting June 14.
For School Board member Jamie Haynes, the inclusion of “random” and “without cause” were concerning because they could be used to unfairly target individuals.
“It’s either we’re going to check everybody and everybody’s going to be treated the same is where I stand, or there’s going to have to be in my mind there has to be a cause for why you’re bullying that person,” Haynes said.
School safety was paramount in the mind of School Board Member Linda Cuthbert.
“The worst thing that could happen to us is to look back and say we should’ve. I don’t want any of our children to have to cower inside classrooms,” Cuthbert said.
“I think I heard someone say … ‘This isn’t the way we’ve done it in the past’ — well, have we had kids mowed down in the past?” School Board Attorney Ted Doran asked. “Thankfully, no. Do we have kids mowed down with AR-15s presently, as we do?”
“I understand the sensitivity to it, but you know, it’s a balancing act,” Doran went on. “On the one side, you got kids — kids being killed, murdered, slaughtered, can’t even be identified after somebody has walked in a room and shot them to literally pieces — versus any adult that comes onto our campus as a visitor in any way, shape, or form and whatever rights they have.”
Case law does allow for schools to set their own policies on searches, school district attorneys said, and just because random searches could happen, doesn’t mean that they would.
“To what degree do you take children’s safety and balance it against the rights or privacy of adults who choose to come onto our campuses?” Doran asked. “When it comes back to randomness, if the law allows for it, why not get the latitude for it?”
By the time of the regular meeting, the language had been updated to “All individuals entering Volusia County schools, sites or events may be subject to search pursuant to established procedures.”
But then, what did “pursuant to established procedures” mean?
For the attorneys, and Board Members Cuthbert and Carl Persis, schools already have the authority, and already search bags as needed. The additional language would merely provide some additional protections, but whether new kinds of searches would actually occur would be a matter for the administrators.
“This is something we’ve been doing for a long time, as long as I remember. I remember those signs, ‘Subject to search,’” School Board Member Cuthbert said. “This is a policy that gives us the authority to do it if it’s needed — the how and the why is up to the superintendent and her administrative team.”
“I think it’s bad practice to not know what the procedure is if you’re passing a policy,” Board Member Anita Burnette said.
“There was a conversation about ‘Well, it’s what we do anyway,’” Volusia United Educators President Elizabeth Albert said. “There are a lot of pieces to the student code of conduct both at the elementary and secondary level, that are black and white in front of us in this policy, and it’s not being executed.”
“Do we need to add more to it right now, or do we need to get this part right?” Albert added.
Finally, when the dust settled, the proposed changes to the search policy were scrapped, and a full list of prohibited items was added. The matter may be revisited after focus groups are held, and after the head of the school resource officers is able to brief the board.
Approving the advertising process for the other 11 policy changes — nearly three years in the making (ever since Volusia County began examining policy provisions for students with disabilities) — passed with little discussion.