SPLC suit over police use of pepper spray against students in Birmingham, Ala., gets major boost with class action certification

A federal court has granted class action status in the SPLC’s lawsuit against the Birmingham Police Department, meaning the organization will represent all current and future students who could be exposed to pepper spray at the hands of police officers stationed in the city’s schools.

“The court’s ruling is a huge victory for all Birmingham students who risk being exposed to pepper spray each day they attend school,” said Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney in the lawsuit. “These students should be able to go to school to learn, and not have to fear for their safety. This ruling is an opportunity for Chief A.C. Roper and Mayor [William] Bell to stand up and say they will protect Birmingham’s youth and end the unconstitutional practice of pepper-spraying students.”

Without class action status, the SPLC lawsuit would benefit only a handful of students.

The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon on Aug. 31, explains how each pepper-spray incident on school grounds is directly related to the policies and practices of the Birmingham Police Department.

Police officers stationed in Birmingham schools currently are regulated only by the Birmingham Police Department’s general policy on “Chemical Spray Subject Restraint.” The department has not provided officers with specific training or guidelines on the appropriate use of pepper spray in a school setting.

Huffman High School student "P.S," 18, was pepper-sprayed by a police officer at school two years ago. The incident started when a boy pushed her sister. When her sister defended herself, a police officer grabbed her from behind and doused her in the face. When Stearnes saw the incident, she ran to help her sister and was caught in the mist of chemicals.

“I’ve never been in trouble before,” P.S. said. “I was not threatening anyone, and I was not violent. The police officer should not have pepper-sprayed me. Pepper spray has no place in Birmingham schools. It’s unacceptable for students like me to be in danger at school.”

The Birmingham Board of Education approved the placement of police officers in schools in January 1996. Over a five-year period beginning in 2006, officers used pepper spray on approximately 200 students. 

The SPLC lawsuit, filed in December 2010, detailed how pepper spray is used against children who are completely restrained and pose no threat to themselves or others in school. The majority of incidents are for petty offenses.