Southern Poverty Law Center Files Federal Lawsuit Targeting Use of Mace on Birmingham Schoolchildren
Seeks to Protect Children from Unconstitutional, Brutal Practices
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal class action lawsuit today targeting the use of mace on Birmingham City School children as a means of basic school discipline. The suit was filed on behalf of district students who have been brutalized with chemical weapons and other excessive force. It also seeks to protect other students from these abusive and unconstitutional practices.
The lawsuit, which was filed after the Birmingham School Board refused to address the issue after it was raised last month by the SPLC, outlines how the Birmingham Board of Education, Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, and the Birmingham Police Department violated the constitutional rights of Birmingham students through an abusive and unconstitutional policy that allows School Resource Officers to use chemical weapons against them to enforce basic school discipline.
“We must ask ourselves: What kind of school system allows the entry of armed police officers who mace its students? One with a serious illness. One that needs to re-examine its ultimate purpose for existence – educating and protecting its students,” said Ebony Glenn Howard, lead attorney on the case for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The use of chemical weapons against Birmingham students is one of the many factors pushing children out of school – a trend that leaves youths unprepared for the future and cripples Alabama’s workforce. As Birmingham Police Chief A.C. Roper noted last year, “Too many of these kids have been criminalized, and that's not the goal. The current system is dysfunctional, and that's putting it mildly.”
Last year, hundreds of students were arrested in the Birmingham City Schools. Virtually all of those arrests were for petty offenses that schools would typically handle with a trip to the principal’s office.
Today’s lawsuit details how mace is used against children who are completely restrained and pose no threat to themselves or others in the school environment. These children are not alleged to have engaged in any wrongdoing but are merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. These children are accused of engaging in normal but non-dangerous adolescent misbehavior – after which the adults taunt and celebrate their punishment.
Individuals exposed to pepper spray are at risk for serious health effects ranging from temporary loss of vision or blurred vision to blistering of the eyes and skin. They can also experience life-threatening effects such as inflammation and swelling of the throat that restrict the size of the airway and limit the amount of oxygen entering the lungs. This is especially concerning in a school district that is 96 percent African American and is located in a community where children have a five times higher death rate due to asthma-related complications.
Ms. Stearnes, the mother of three Birmingham schoolchildren recounted the macing of two of her daughters. “I sent them there to get an education and I expected the school would protect them,” she said. “Then my older daughter was maced - she wasn’t a danger to herself, or anybody else. It was completely unjustified. And, when my younger daughter saw her sister get maced, and she ran to help her. She, too, was exposed to the mace. This needs to be stopped.”