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SPLC goes to trial today to curtail use of pepper spray on children in Birmingham, Ala., public schools

The class action suit claims that police in a predominantly African-American school district used unconstitutional, excessive force on students, some of them already restrained, by deploying chemical spray on about 300 students over a five-year period.

When “K.B.” was a tenth-grader in a Birmingham high school, she was walking to class in tears after a boy made inappropriate sexual comments. After being told to “calm down” by a police officer, she was doused in the face with pepper spray and handcuffed.

Another student at the same school, “J.W.” was watching other students fight when he was exposed to the painful aerosol as it drifted across the bystanders.

Both former students are plaintiffs in the SPLC’s 2010 class action suit claiming that police stationed in the schools used excessive force on children in violation of their constitutional rights. It seeks to curtail the use of chemical weapons in the Birmingham Public Schools system.

The suit against the police department goes to trial today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District for Alabama, Southern Division.

“Our clients are looking forward to their day in court,” said Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney in the lawsuit. “We believe the repeated use of chemical weapons on children in Birmingham schools is not only excessive, unreasonable and entirely inappropriate – but unconstitutional as well. These dangerous weapons should never be used as a punitive measure or when a child represents no threat to anyone.”

From 2006 to 2011, police in Birmingham public schools – whose students are predominantly African American – used chemical weapons on about 300 students. More than 1,000 others were exposed to the spray during those incidents. 

The SPLC suit alleges that many students were already restrained or posed no safety threat when they were pepper-sprayed. Others were bystanders.

As a 2012 court order notes, none of the students named as plaintiffs committed a crime serious enough to warrant such force. In fact, no criminal charges were lodged against any of the students, who had “only committed minor school infractions,” the court wrote.

The case has been certified as a class action, meaning that the plaintiffs represent all current and future students in the district who could be exposed to chemical weapons.