12/06/2011

Southern Poverty Law Center Calls on Birmingham to Defend Students

Students Still Face Daily Threat of Mace a Year After SPLC Lawsuit

The Southern Poverty Law Center called on the Birmingham, Ala., community to demand that city officials stop allowing police officers to use Mace against students in Birmingham’s public schools.

Attorneys made the statement at a press conference following a federal court hearing to determine if an SPLC lawsuit seeking to end the practice will be certified as a class-action lawsuit that will represent all current and former city school students.

“For the past year, the children in this case have done what so many adults have not been willing to do,” said Ebony Howard, lead attorney on the case for the SPLC. “They have stood up for the right to attend schools without the fear of being maced by officers who are supposed to be protecting them. I call on every parent and grandparent, every mentor and pastor, and every community leader and public official to stand up for our children and demand that this practice stops.”

Last December, the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of district students who were subjected to chemical weapons and other excessive force by police officers acting as school resource officers in Birmingham public schools. Over the past year, the school board has refused to address this abuse.

SPLC attorneys also argued today that school board attorneys should not be allowed to defend the actions of the Birmingham Police Department and its officers.

Earlier this year, school board attorneys asked for the Birmingham Board of Education to be dropped from the lawsuit by arguing the board has no duty to protect the students attending its schools. The court granted the school board’s request and dismissed it as a defendant in the case. Despite being dropped from the lawsuit, school board attorneys are assisting the police department in defending the abusive practices.

“It is outrageous that the school board has not only refused to defend its students, but is defending the abusive tactics used against its students,” Howard said. “We urge Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, Mayor William Bell and the city council to defend Birmingham students rather than the abuse the students have suffered.”

The lawsuit charges that children have been sprayed with Mace while fully restrained and without any warning. It also charges Mace has often been used as a first resort by officers. Birmingham students have been sprayed with Mace while standing in peaceful crowds and as punishment for engaging in typical adolescent misbehavior such as being loud or using profanity. Individuals exposed to chemical weapons are at risk for serious health effects including:

  • blistering and scarring of the eye;
  • temporary loss of vision or blurred vision;
  • chemical burns;
  • difficulty breathing; and
  • severe or life-threatening asthma attacks.

The hearing was held before Judge Abdul K. Kallon in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama in Birmingham.