A mother whose daughters were hit with pepper spray by a police officer at their school in Birmingham, Ala., joined the SPLC and a coalition of advocacy groups today to present the city council and Mayor William Bell with a petition signed by more than 25,000 people urging them to stop allowing police officers to discipline students with chemical weapons.
The SPLC sued the police department in December 2010 after finding that almost 200 Birmingham students had been sprayed with chemical weapons during a five-year period – mostly for petty offenses that schools typically address with a trip to the principal’s office. The lawsuit, which is ongoing, detailed how pepper spray is used against children who are completely restrained and pose no threat to themselves or others in school.
LaTonya Stearnes, the mother of three Birmingham school children, recounted an incident at Huffman High School that occurred after a boy pushed one of her daughters. When the girl defended herself, a police officer grabbed her from behind and sprayed her in her face. When another daughter ran to help her sister, she was caught in the mist of chemicals.
“I will never forget my daughter’s red and swollen face,” Stearnes said. “I sent my girls to school thinking they would be safe and protected. I never thought they would be –pepper-sprayed. These are teenage girls, not criminals.”
The SPLC is unaware of any other school district in the nation where police officers use chemical weapons against students on such a frequent basis.
“Chemical weapons are intended to be a last resort for public protection, not a method for disciplining high school students engaging in typical adolescent misbehavior,” said Ebony Howard, lead attorney on the case for the SPLC. “Using pepper spray on schoolchildren only encourages drop-out and derails young lives. We sincerely hope the mayor and city council will join our fight to protect the city’s children.”
The coalition, which includes Change.org., the Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Birmingham chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, want city officials to institute an improved selection process for officers stationed in schools and specialized training that will help them address school incidents safely and effectively.
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.