Several accounts were recently presented to US District Judge Abdul Kallon in a lawsuit whose outcome is expected in a decision Monday. However the judge rules, it may end up determining whether police that work within schools as “School Resource Officers” are allowed to pepper-spray students for being “unruly.”
The suit explains that schools should “have the tools to help calm down a conflict,” but that should “not involve spraying chemicals in kids’ faces.”
Mother Jones reported that the suit was filed in 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It alleges that eight students, “suffered physically and emotionally from unnecessary use of pepper spray.”
The suit specifically names six school cops, as Birmingham Alabama Police Chief A.C. Roper. The suit has class action status, meaning that the decision the judge hands down will apply to all of the district schools, and may indirectly impact decisions across state lines in the future.
“We want it to be declared unconstitutional because it allows officers to spray people, specifically students, without considering a wide variety of factors—such as whether they are in a school environment, the fact that they are in a closed environment, and the fact that these things that they are accusing kids of doing and acting on are actually just student misconduct issues,” Ebony Howard, the SPLC staff attorney said.
Since 2006, Howard explains that there have been hundreds of incidents where high school students have been pepper-sprayed for being “unruly” even though no laws were broken.
“We want training for these officers on adolescent development, de-escalation techniques, conflict management, and conflict resolution,” she told Allie Gross with Mother Jones.
“Basically, we want them to be trained on how to actually be SROs, and to work in an environment where they have the tools to help calm down a conflict that do not involve spraying chemicals in kids’ faces.”
According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS) there were nearly 12,000 school cops or “SROs” in 1997, but by 2003, that number had jumped to nearly 20,000.
Michael Choy, the police department’s defense attorney, argued in the second week of the trial, that high school students “are not children” but, instead, “big adults.”
But SPLC lawyer Ebony Howard explained that, “when you use a tactic like chemical sprays in schools, those kids learn to distrust law enforcement officers.”
Dennis Parker, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice program said that such comments are “very disturbing.”
Gross notes that Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State University’s College of Education, commented on this situation, saying that “Police set up a different environment in a school. It becomes less focused on nurturing and caring and growing, and more focused on control…It’s sort of tough in the environment of police presence to go, ‘Oh, no, we’re really a community of trust.’
“When you use a tactic like chemical sprays in schools, what you do is you teach a kid who has been sprayed, a kid who may have been accidentally sprayed, a kid who saw another kid get sprayed, as well as a kid who just knows about the use of the chemical—all of those kids learn to distrust law enforcement officers,” Howard continued. “They learn that they will not be treated fairly.”