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Students Say Schools’ Use of Mace|Creates a ‘Police State’ in Birmingham

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (CN) - In a federal class action, students and parents accuse the Birmingham Board of Education and Police Chief of "creating a police state within the city's public high schools" by allowing police officers to "brutalize" students "with chemical weapons," including Mace, as a way to "enforce basic school discipline." Schools call police to handle even "minor incidents of childish misbehavior," and "school personnel not only watch, but sometimes even celebrate when schoolchildren are Maced," according to the complaint. Ninety-six percent of the children in Birmingham public schools are black.

The class action was filed on behalf of seven students of Birmingham City Schools "who have been brutalized with chemical weapons and other excessive force while attempting to obtain an education."

The 61-page complaint, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, claims the the defendants have placed police officers, known as School Resource Officers, in every city school.

It says the "original goal and purpose of the SRO Program was to protect the safety of the students. ... But in practice, SROs frequently became involved - both on their own initiative and at the request of school personnel - in minor incidents in which safety was not an issue. In some instances, it is the SROs themselves who threaten the safety they are charged to protect."

The students say that "SROs handle misbehavior traditionally managed by the school, such as children who utter expletives or refuse to comply with directives." But rather than protect students, the SROs are "quick to resort to pepper spray aka Mace or Freeze + P. School personnel not only watch but sometimes even celebrate when schoolchildren are Maced," the complaint states."

Chemical weapons are particularly dangerous to children with asthma, and the "Department of Health and Human Services has reported an especially high prevalence of asthma among African Americans, particularly among African-American children,", who account for 96 percent of the city's public school students, according to the complaint.

"Physical injuries are not the only negative consequences that result from the use of pepper spray in Birmingham high schools. As a result of the defendants' unconstitutional policy and conduct, the plaintiffs and countless other BCS students have been conditioned to fear and distrust school and law enforcement officials. Plaintiffs' attachment to school has been undermined, one has dropped out, and all have been robbed of the sense of security and safety that children should experience while attending schools."

All seven plaintiff students say they were attacked with chemical weapons for various infractions, from fighting in the schoolyard to cursing at a teacher. They say that "because Mace is used so frequently and so indiscriminately in Birmingham's public high schools, each plaintiff - and each member of the class - faces a real and substantial risk of future and repeated injury."

The class claims that police officers working as school resource officers "have abandoned their primary mission - to protect student safety - in order to become stools of school personnel who have abdicated their disciplinary responsibilities."

"This phenomenon was acknowledged publicly by interim Superintendent Barbara Allen," the class says.

Citing a March 22, 2009 article in the Birmingham News, the complaint states:

"'Other school system aren't arresting kids for small things; they handle it from within,' Allen said. 'We call the police.

"She said SROs too often are called upon to handle small fights, disruptive behavior and dress-code violations, such as sagging pants."

The class seeks injunctions and punitive damages for civil rights violations, use of excessive force, assault and battery, and the tort of outrage.

The Birmingham Board of Education is the lead defendant. The other defendants, all sued in their individual and official capacity, are School Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, Police Chief A.C. Roper, Officers J. Nevitt, A. Clark, R. Tarrant, and M. Benson, and Assistant Principal Anthony Moss.

The plaintiffs are represented by Ebony Glenn Howard with the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery.

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