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Enough! Say Students Tasered in School

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CN) - Syracuse irresponsibly lets its police officers use Tasers in public schools, leading to excessive force and injuries, two former high school students claim in Federal Court.

Andre Epps and Trevon Hanks claim city police officers assigned to their schools shot them with Tasers without warning, in separate incidents.

"The officers ... were guided by policies and training that failed to acknowledge the important differences between regulating adult criminal behavior and regulating children within the educational environment," Epps and Hanks claim in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit amends a complaint filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Epps in 2010, by adding Hanks as a plaintiff.

Named as defendants are the City of Syracuse and three cops who are "resource officers" in city schools: James Stone, James Morris and Michael Thomas. They are sued individually and in their official capacities.

Resource officers are Syracuse Police Department employees assigned to the city's middle and high schools to provide security. They wear uniforms and carry guns and Tasers, according to the complaint.

"Schools are supposed to be safe and supportive learning environments," Barrie Gewanter, director of the NYCLU's Central New York chapter, said in a statement. "Yet in Syracuse, officers trained for the streets are using dangerous weapons on children with impunity. These abusive police street tactics have no place in our schools."

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner's office declined comment.

A police spokesman told the Syracuse Post-Standard the department would have no comment on the lawsuit.

Tasers are "potentially lethal weapons" that deliver "debilitating electric shocks to cause neuromuscular incapacitation and force compliance with police orders through pain," according to the complaint.

The devices typically fire two barbs containing electrodes that can penetrate clothing and pierce skin; they can deliver shocks without barbs when pressed directly against a person.

Amnesty International claims Tasers have killed 350 people in the United States, and that Taser International has acknowledged that serious injury or death can result from the devices.

Both Epps and Hanks say they experienced lasting pain and recurring headaches from being shocked.

Epps was a 15-year-old student at Fowler High School in Syracuse in 2009 when he was shot twice with a Taser by defendant Stone, according to the complaint

Epps says he had stepped between two girls to prevent an after-school fight when he was shot without warning.

He "was not resisting arrest or resisting any lawful order of any of the police officers when Officer Stone deployed his Taser," according to the complaint.

No criminal charges were filed against Epps.

Hanks was an 18-year-old senior at Henninger High School in Syracuse in 2012 when he was shot three times with a Taser by defendant Thomas, according to the complaint.

A Type 1, insulin-dependent diabetic, Hanks says he had many absences during the school year due to his condition, which threatened to derail his graduation. Frustrated in the computer lab one day, he "went out into the hallway and lay down on the ground," calling his mother on his cellphone to calm down.

He claims Officer Thomas approached him "with his Taser already drawn," and tried, with the assistance of a staff member, to get Hanks onto his stomach.

"Officer Thomas, without issuing a verbal Taser warning, then placed the Taser directly on Trevon Hanks' back and activated the Taser in drive-stun mode," the complaint states. Then the officer shocked him twice more, the complaint states.

Hanks says he was handcuffed, put into a police car and taken to the Onondaga County Justice Center, where he arrived too late for afternoon arraignment and had to spend the night in jail.

He was charged with resisting arrest, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct, and was released on his own recognizance the next day. Months later, the charges were adjourned in contemplation of dismissal.

Epps and Hanks claim excessive force was used against them in violation of their rights under the state and U.S. Constitutions. They also allege false arrest and imprisonment, battery and assault.

They claims that "numerous excessive force suits" have been brought against Syracuse police for their use of Tasers, and that news reports put the number of Taser discharges by the department at more than 700 from 2005 to 2009.

"At the time of the incidents described herein," Epps and Hanks say, "neither school resource officers nor other Syracuse police officers received any special training to prepare them for being posted in a school environment for dealing with young people or youth behavior."

Any Taser training they do receive comes from the manufacturer, according to the complaint. But in addition to not covering use in schools, the training "does not speak to the circumstances in which officers should deploy Tasers, the placement of Tasers on the use-of-force spectrum, whether officers should warn prior to deploying a Taser, and whether officers should attempt to use other, less-serious force prior to using Tasers," Epps and Hanks say.

They seek declaratory judgment, damages, costs and attorney's fees.

They are represented by Erin Beth Harrist with the NYCLU Foundation in New York City.

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