High Rates Of Pepper Spraying In Ala. School District

fromWBHM

Pepper spraying has been in the news recently with images of police dousing Occupy protestors. But one school district in Birmingham, Ala., apparently leads the nation with police pepper spraying students.

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Some of the most searing images of the Civil Rights Movement came from Birmingham, Alabama, as police sprayed demonstrators using fire hoses. In Birmingham today, a different kind of spraying is in the news: pepper spraying. The targets are kids in high school. We hear more from Dan Carsen of member station WBHM.

DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: K.B. is like a lot of high school students. The 17-year-old is a little shy around adults, but likes to joke around with friends. She's on her high school dance team and loves art class.

K.B.: Now, I'm doing stained glass. It's like you draw a little picture and you cut it out and put different little thin pieces of colored papers in it. And you can hang it up against your window.

CARSEN: But one day at school last February, she says a male student began to harass her. She started to argue with him and then began crying. Soon, one of the school's police officers showed up.

K.B.: Once we started going our separate ways, the police officer grabbed me. And he had put handcuffs on me. He's telling me I need to calm down. And I was like, I am calm, then I got Maced. My eyes was burning. My face was burning. Like, I couldn't breathe. And then like, afterwards, I threw up.

CARSEN: K.B. was also four months pregnant at the time. This is just one incident of more than 100 over the past five years, where Birmingham police officers pepper-sprayed students on campus. Since 1996, the school district has put police officers in Birmingham high schools.

At the conclusion of one of the department's police academies, 56 recruits are about to be sworn in as officers. They march in, stand at attention and sit. Their movements are military, their spines erect, their faces stoic.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Sir, yes, sir.

CARSEN: These recruits have been schooled on firearms, restraint procedures and other things they'll need on dangerous streets. But K.B. and other students say a school campus is a very different arena.

Birmingham Police Lieutenant Graydon Newman runs the training academy. He says pepper spray has its advantages, even in a school setting.

LT. GRAYDON NEWMAN: Anything that's basically less-than-lethal is helpful for us. Some people we deal with can be very violent. On officer goes on the scene, he can't tell who's the aggressor, who's not. All he sees is two people fighting. For him to try to rush in in the middle of somebody fighting would be not only dangerous to him but dangerous to them.

CARSEN: The Birmingham School District declined requests for an interview. But police are not violating school policy. The school system has no regulations governing officers' use of force. So police rules are in effect.

Ronald Stephens of the National School Safety Center says pepper spraying may sound extreme, but sometimes it's needed.

RONALD STEPHENS: Unless someone has tried to break up a fight lately, they probably don't have the most recent, vivid reminder of the challenges that exist. The fighting today can quickly escalate. Just one good strategic punch and we're talking severe brain damage and even death.

CARSEN: It's hard to find data on officers pepper-spraying students in schools. There's no national clearinghouse and some incidents go unreported. But there's another factor: Birmingham may truly be unusual in its use of pepper spray by police officers in schools. Police have said publicly that school staff sometimes rely too heavily on the officers for disciplinary matters.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says it doesn't know of a school system anywhere in the country where students are pepper-sprayed as often as in Birmingham. Russell Skiba is a school discipline expert at Indiana University.

It would be like if you said, well, what do you think about breaking kids' arms as a disciplinary procedure? There isn't much to go on. That just doesn't happen in most schools. I have to say that I'm personally outraged.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a suit on behalf of K.B. and seven other students, alleging brutal mistreatment for non-criminal behavior. They want the officers either to stop spraying students or to leave the schools. Here's the SPLC's lead attorney Ebony Howard.

EBONY HOWARD: We have students who come from tough socioeconomic backgrounds. Instead of giving them the opportunity to be children, to learn from the mistakes that they make, they have found a way to take away the childhood of these kids.

CARSEN: Howard says this lawsuit is a first. The SPLC hopes to get the suit certified as a class action, so it applies to all current and future Birmingham public school students. A judge is set to rule on that soon.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham, Alabama.

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