Pepper Spraying Students: High School Security Gone Awry

When students feel unsafe in school, they should be able to trust in the school's security officers. But in Birmingham, it's the security officers who are making the students feel unsafe. Their aggressive use of pepper spray is causing controversy and heightening friction with students.

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Punishing with Pepper Spray

The Birmingham School District is facing criticism over numerous reports of students getting pepper-sprayed excessively and without just cause. According to one report, pepper spray was used on students in Birmingham approximately 100 times in the past five years. This includes an incident in which a 17-year-old girl who was four months pregnant was pepper-sprayed. In another case, a girl with a heart murmur was pepper-sprayed.

Since 1996, Birmingham public schools have used local police officers for security. The police department argues that pepper spray is a non-lethal tactic and, therefore, it's preferable over more drastic measures. It should be noted that the police officers are not violating any school policy; since there are no rules regarding the officers' use of force in schools, external police regulations are in effect. Yet no other school district uses pepper spray as commonly as Birmingham.

Students Fight Back

Students in Birmingham have begun to organize and fight back against the use of pepper spray in schools. With help from the Southern Poverty Law Center, students have brought a lawsuit against the Birmingham Board of Education, Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper and several of the officers placed in schools. The lawsuit, for which they are seeking class-action status, posits that the rampant pepper spray use violates students' constitutional rights.

The most compelling element of the students' case is that pepper spray has been used in cases where students are already restrained. Furthermore, parents and students have come forward to state that pepper spray was used on students who were subsequently not charged with any crime or violation of school policy. The goal of the lawsuit is to ban the use of pepper spray, or any similar product, as well as to award compensatory or punitive damages to students victimized by officers.

Brokering Peace

In addition to the lawsuit, students hope to improve relations with the officers who are supposed to be protecting them. They hope to make the selection process for choosing officers for schools more rigorous. They also hope to institute stronger and more comprehensive training for officers who will be placed in schools. Ideally, the officers will be specifically trained for work in schools and interactions with students, thereby mitigating the friction and combativeness that has taken place over the past few years.

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