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Civil rights group threatens to sue if Birmingham schools don't stop using pepper spray

The Southern Poverty Law Center is demanding that school resource officers in Birmingham city schools stop using pepper spray on unruly children.

SPLC, a civil rights advocacy group, said there are far too many instances of students being sprayed with pepper spray in Birmingham, often because of small fights, bad behavior or excessive talking.

The group sent a letter to Birmingham board attorney Afrika Parchman, dated Nov. 18, asking the district to stop using pepper spray by Nov. 29, or a federal lawsuit will be filed.

"The use of such weapons against school children is a clear and egregious violation of students' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution," the letter reads. "Moreover, the use of chemical weapons on school children is detrimental to their health and psychological well-being."

Birmingham school Superintendent Craig Witherspoon said he hadn't yet seen the letter and couldn't comment until he reviewed it.

City officials also are reviewing the letter and will respond later, said April Odom, spokeswoman for the city of Birmingham.

School resource officers -- Birmingham police officers assigned to schools -- often use Mace or other forms of pepper spray to break up fights or handle other behavioral problems.

Resource officers in Jefferson County schools carry pepper spray as part of standard police equipment, but have used the spray only once in the past decade, said county Superintendent Phil Hammonds.

Former Birmingham school Superintendent Barbara Allen worked with several entities, including the Jefferson County Family Court, to reduce arrests and instances of pepper spray use and said most discipline issues in Birmingham schools should be handled by school administrators, not school resource officers.

"Despite the great success that Birmingham city schools have made in reducing the number of student arrests in their schools, there's still a great deal of progress to be made," said Judge Brian Huff of Jefferson County's Family Court.

"We have to ask ourselves if this practice were going on in Mountain Brook or Vestavia or Homewood, what would our reaction be? I don't believe we'd stand for it, " Huff said.

Ebony Glenn Howard, a juvenile justice policy specialist and lawyer for SPLC, said that pepper spray is used in situations in which a school resource officer shouldn't even be involved.

"Frankly, it's never acceptable or warranted, but we've heard of instances where a male student was Maced for using an expletive," she said.

The group said its office represents a number of Birmingham school students who have been subjected to pepper spray in school.

"Countless BCS students have been injured due to the improper and reckless use of Freeze +P, an OC pepper spray weapon, by SROs against Birmingham students," the letter reads. "Rather than trying to de-escalate situations through less dangerous methods, SROs frequently deploy Mace as a first resort and without providing any verbal warning."

Dexter Cunningham, president of the Birmingham's Fraternal Order of Police, said officers are well-trained in using whatever defensive weapons are available. All of the officers' weapons are just that -- defensive tools, not tools used on the offense, he said.

"Everything they carry is defensive in nature for, first and foremost, protection of life," Cunningham said. "Why not just pull police officers out of schools? At any school, whether it's Birmingham or over the mountain, would parents rather have police officers in the schools or not in the schools?"

Birmingham school resource officers carry guns and batons. They are prohibited from carrying stun-guns into the schools.

The letter to Birmingham is part of a statewide campaign by the Southern Poverty Law Center to end what the center considers the unnecessary use of harsh school discipline practices that are pushing students to drop out of school, said Marion Chartoff, director of the Alabama Education Project at SPLC.

"Schools across the state are relying too heavily on out-of-school suspension and expulsion in responding to minor violations of school rules, taking kids out of the learning environment unnecessarily," Chartoff said. "And some of these students have been so traumatized, they're not returning to school."

http://blog.al.com/spotnews/2010/11/...reatens_t.html

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Posted in: News by NewsBot on December 9, 2010 @ 3:32 PM

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