There is a scene in “All She Can,” a new film about a Mexican American high school female weightlifter in Benavides, Texas that I hadn’t expected to be emotional over.
In the scene, a class of high school students are asked by the county police to line up in the school hallway and wait while officers and the search dog walk inside the classroom, letting the dog sniff over the belongings of high school students. The students are then ordered to hold their hands out and open their palms, while the police dog is taken down the line.
The film suggests this is a common occurrence in border town high schools (Benavides is around 260 km from Matamoros, Mexico, and the film portrays the town as a passing point for undocumented immigrants), but the purpose of the search is not communicated in the film.
The student search gives way to a revelation of an important plot point, but what impacted me, although I’ve seen it time and again in film and TV, was the line-up of brown youth being searched by authorities. I didn’t understand why the students were being searched but I still registered and felt the fear of being subjected to authority. The scene made it clear that the young Mexican-American students were being criminalized, and made “illegal,” in the name of maintaining school safety, or in this case, border and national safety.
What the scene in “All She Can” demonstrated was that such instances of student searches is a humiliating public incident. This past February in Clayton County Georgia, a middle school student sued the Clayton County School district after school officials strip-searched the student in front of other students. The student had been accused of having marijuana. School officials found nothing, but students have taunted him by calling him “Superman” after the underwear he was wearing.
This is the same county that in 2002 ordered a mass student strip search of a 5th grade classroom. In March, the Daniel Boone Area School District in Union, Pennsylvania ordered daily morning student bag searches after finding violent racist remarks against white and black students on a bathroom stall. In a video produced by the Mercury News, high school students said they thought it was unfair that security only searched the bags of certain students who “looked suspicious.”
Asked by the reporter what they meant by suspicious, the students said they meant students who wear “baggy, raggedy and large clothing.” On March 26, school district officials held an open forum for the community to address the racial slurs that were found in the school bathrooms.
I remember my days in middle and high school, seeing the police guards, security cameras, metal detectors and wire surrounding the campus. Far from feeling safe, I felt as if I was the intruder.
Edgardo Cervano-Soto is a fellow with New America Media's Youth Education Fellowship. The fellowship is a six-month long program for youth reporters aged 16-24 on education reporting. It is sponsored by the California Education Policy Fund.