10/04/2012

Judge orders Birmingham, Ala., PD to face trial in SPLC lawsuit over pepper-spraying students

A federal judge has denied a request by the Birmingham Police Department in Alabama to dismiss a lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center filed against the department for its brutal use of pepper spray against the city’s public school students.

The judge also denied an assistant high school principal’s request to be dropped as a defendant in the lawsuit. The order means the police department and the assistant principal will face a federal civil trial for the use of pepper spray and excessive force against Birmingham students.

“We look forward to proving that these students’ rights have been violated,” said Ebony Howard, lead attorney on the SPLC case. “The Birmingham Police Department should be protecting these students instead of wasting taxpayer dollars defending the inhumane use of pepper spray by officers stationed in Birmingham schools. The fact that this brutal practice has continued for so long is truly an embarrassment for the city of Birmingham.”

The court order, issued by U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon, was filed on Oct. 3 in response to a motion for summary judgment by the Birmingham Police Department and Carver High School Assistant Principal Anthony Moss.

The judge’s order describes an instance where Moss, the assistant principal, tripped a student attempting to leave the Birmingham high school. He then stepped on her back to restrain her. The student – identified as “T.A.P.” in the order – said that Moss had ordered her to leave the school after she was falsely accused of smoking cigarettes.

“Frankly, when coupled with T.A.P.’s allegation that Moss also tripped her, Moss’s admitted conduct borders on child abuse,” Kallon wrote in the court order.

After Moss released T.A.P., she stood up and accidently bumped the school’s police officer as her backpack swung around. When the student saw the officer reach for his gun belt, she fled out of fear. The officer chased T.A.P. and apprehended her in front of the school. She was held down by Moss and two other men as the officer doused her in the face and eyes with pepper spray.

In the order, Kallon notes the officer could have waited to arrest the student at home “because the school presumably had T.A.P.’s home address.”

The order also describes how police officers stationed in Birmingham schools have used pepper spray – a chemical weapon typically used to restrain belligerent criminals – on a student as young as 15 and, in at least one instance, a pregnant student.

The SPLC has been unable to identify any other police department in the country that relies so heavily on the use of chemical weapons against students on school grounds. Children exposed to pepper spray are at risk for serious – even life-threatening – health issues.

“The real tragedy is the long-term impact that results from having pepper spray in our schools,” Howard said. “Birmingham youth have learned to distrust authority figures as a result of the actions of these police officers, who are supposed to protect them.”