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When You Have Police In Schools, Kids End Up Getting Pepper-Sprayed

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 5/10/2015 Rebecca Klein
ATHENA IMAGE © Martinan via Getty Images ATHENA IMAGE

In 2011, a 17-year-old girl was pepper-sprayed by a school resource officer at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Alabama, after getting in a dispute with her principal. Following the incident, the girl -- later identified in a lawsuit by her initials, "B.D." -- was taken outside to get air, but she never received medical attention or an opportunity to wash her face or change her contaminated clothes. Her eyes were swollen for days, and she had welts on her face for over a week.

B.D. is one of the plaintiffs in a recently decided Southern Poverty Law Center case against the Birmingham police. In litigation originally filed in 2010, a group of plaintiffs sued the police department -- which provides school resource officers, or SROs, to local public schools -- for excessive use of pepper spray and other aerosolized chemicals as a form of discipline. Last Wednesday, a judge ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, finding that the SROs' use of pepper spray to punish minor infractions at Birmingham schools is unconstitutional. The judge also found the police officers’ indifference to decontaminating injured students like B.D. to constitute an excessive use of force.

Scroll down to see The Huffington Post's map of where students get pepper-sprayed in school.

As a result, Birmingham police will have to devise new training procedures and policies governing their use of chemical spray.

“It caused me a lot of emotional distress. It caused me a lot of depression, a lot of missed days of school. It caused me hair loss,” said B.D. during a call with reporters last week. “At least it wasn’t all in vain. I have something to show for all my heartache.”

Between 2006 and 2014, SROs directly sprayed at least 199 students in Birmingham with chemicals, according to the lawsuit. Up to 1,000 kids were exposed to pepper spray indirectly during those incidents, the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates.

School resource officers in Birmingham are likely an exception in terms of how frequently they spray students with chemicals. However, this form of discipline is not unheard of in many other places.

Since September 2014, The Huffington Post has been tracking local news reports that describe SROs using chemical sprays against students. HuffPost has found 25 such incidents in the past year. 

This number is likely only a percentage of the overall total, since not every incident is reported in the media. In recent years, the number of police officers based in schools has ballooned amid tragedies like the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. However, there is no official database that tracks how often school-based police officers employ nonlethal weapons, like chemical spray, against students. Policies vary from department to department about when school police may use nonlethal weapons.

The map below shows where students have been subjected to chemical spray in school since September 2014, according to a HuffPost survey of local news reports.

The Birmingham case did not deal with the matter of whether police should be allowed to use chemical spray as a form of discipline in schools. Rather, at issue was the question of what behaviors justify use of the weapon. Although the plaintiffs conceded that “Birmingham City Schools can spray students who are actively engaged in a physical fight or other violent behavior,” the court found that students have been sprayed for as little as verbal defiance.

Birmingham police officers use a chemical spray known as Freeze +P, “which is described by its manufacturer as ‘the most intense... incapacitating agent available today,’” according to the judge’s opinion. Freeze +P, a mix of pepper spray and tear gas, can cause severe pain. 

A representative for the Birmingham Police Department would not comment on the decision.

The Birmingham case may set a precedent for other school systems, according to Ebony Howard, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“It definitely signals to school districts here in Alabama, as well as across the nation, that when you use a tactic, a harsh tactic like this one, a tactic that causes severe pain... you have to be very careful and particular,” said Howard on a call with reporters. “I think what’s also going to be signaled to other school districts is that you cannot allow SROs to go into school districts without appropriate training and appropriate guidance about how they interact with children." 

“Our kids are so very important to us and to our future," Howard continued. "Everything that we do to them right now will dictate how our future turns out.”

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