More than four years after a lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) on behalf of students sprayed with pepper spray by members of the Birmingham Police Department, the public is finally learning the details.
The trial began January 20 and is still underway.
The SPLC alleges Birmingham police deployed pepper spray in 110 incidents, affecting more than 300 students, since 2006. Arrest reports indicate only one of those incidents involved a weapon, and that weapon was removed from the student before pepper spray was deployed by the officer against the student.
From the SPLC web page devoted to the lawsuit:
“Students in Birmingham, Ala., public schools were subjected to pepper spray as punishment for routine offenses.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit [in December 2010] on behalf of district students to end the practice and other abusive and unconstitutional behavior. It was filed after the Birmingham School Board refused to address the issue following a November 18 demand letter SPLC sent to the board’s attorney.
The SPLC later uncovered more pepper spray incidents, including several involving female students and, in one instance, a pregnant student. After discovering these incidents, the SPLC filed a motion to certify the complaint as a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all current and future students in the district.
The lawsuit describes how the Birmingham Board of Education, the superintendent and the Birmingham Police Department violated the constitutional rights of students through an abusive policy that allowed school resource officers to use chemical weapons against students to enforce basic school discipline.
Pepper spray was used against children who posed no threat to themselves or others. These children were accused of engaging in normal but non-dangerous adolescent misbehavior. Adults taunted the students and even celebrated their punishment.”
This article, published by The Marshall Project, is an excellent introduction to the trial. Read it, please.
This article, from al.com’s Kent Faulk, delineates the trial’s debate. Read it, too, please.
As I sit in the gallery, on those archetypal wooden benches, my mind races.
…if I had a child in Birmingham City Schools, how could I be sure that the board of education had carefully considered the consequences…the ramifications….of placing policemen in my child’s school?
How would I feel about my child’s rights if the board claimed they had absolutely no authority over those police officers?
This trial raises many questions about police and schools and students, including:
- What is the role and function of a police officer inside a school building?
- Who should maintain authority over a police officer within a school?
- What policies should be in place to ensure proper actions and interactions with students by police officers?
- Who should employ school resource officers (SROs) in a school building: the board of education or the police department?
- What is the difference between an SRO and a policeman working a beat?
- When in a school building, when is an SRO and SRO and when is he a policeman?
- What type of training should SROs undertake, and should that training be ongoing?
- Who is qualified to serve as an SRO?
- Under what circumstances, if ever, should pepper spray or other chemical agents be deployed against a student?
- Should pepper spray or other chemical agents be deployed within a school building or on school grounds against a student?
- How should use of force be governed: policies, training, reporting, monitoring?
- Who is the appropriate authority within a school building to handle discipline?
- What is the role of the board of education where the use of police force against students is concerned?
- How can parents and families have a voice in determining these answers?
Truly, the list of questions could go on and on. And on.
Judge Abdul Kallon has an incredible burden on his shoulders as he determines the appropriate response to the SPLC’s demand for the Birmingham Police Department “to immediately abandon the use of chemical and other weapons against schoolchildren and revise their unconstitutional policies”.
In addition to that demand, plaintiffs have requested “damages arising from violations of their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and for the torts of assault and battery and outrage”.
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The lawsuit continues to catch the attention of the national press, and I may miss a link here and there. Please send links to asc(at)alabamaschoolconnection.org.