Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pepper Spraying Our Teens

By M. David Hornbuckle

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there have been about a hundred cases, since 2006, of students in Birmingham city high schools being pepper sprayed and arrested by police officers stationed in the schools. These officers are titled “School Resource Officers (SROs),” but they are employed by the police department, not the school system. The SPLC has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of six current or former students in these cases. Named in the lawsuit are four SROs, the Birmingham Board of Education, and the Chief of Police. The group claims it can find no other school district in the country where pepper spray has been used as frequently or in the same way it is used in Birmingham.

Now, that sounds bad, right? It gets worse. The Birmingham school system argues that it has no federal constitutional duty to protect students’ safety from the actions of third parties—in this case, the police. Because, you see: the police don’t work for the school system. So the police are there because these teens are out of control gangsters, right? They are breaking up knife fights and such, right?

No. Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney on this case, says that many of these incidents involve nothing more than normal adolescent misbehavior, such as cursing or being too loud. In one instance last year, a pregnant teenager at Woodlawn High School was crying hysterically in the hallway because some boys had been calling her names. When the officer asked her to calm down, and she didn’t, he put her in handcuffs (I know that always calms ME down). When that didn’t work, out came the pepper spray.

So then what happens, you might ask. Well, the kid is arrested. But first, the officer is required to allow the student to seek medical attention, so they go to the hospital. At the hospital, the teenager is told there is nothing that can be done about pepper spray, and they’ll just have to wait it out (which isn’t actually true—they could remove the clothes that are still reeking of pepper fumes and help the kid wash off with soap and water, but they usually don’t do that). They tell the teenager to sign a piece of paper, and they usually do without knowing that it is a waiver saying they refused medical treatment. After that, the teen is taken to the juvenile detention center, where they call the parents and schedule a hearing. At the hearing, they usually decide not to prosecute the student any further. For crying. Because she was pregnant and boys were calling her a slut.

One problem here is that the officers are not given sufficient training to deal with youth, particularly special needs youth. And that can lead to them becoming a little too trigger happy when a situation becomes a little frustrating. There is also a huge problem with kids being exposed to pepper spray because they happen to be standing nearby when the incident happens.

These problems are concentrated in certain high schools; Jackson Olin, Woodlawn, Carver, and Winona. These schools all serve a mostly African-American community. So can you say these problems are racially motivated? Howard says, “It’s not so simple. The staff and SROs at these schools are also mostly black.”

But you can bet that if these problems were occurring in a different part of town, there would be a lot more outrage.

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