Federal Appeals Court to Hear Birmingham School Pepper Spray Case


A case that alleges chemical spray is overused in Birmingham, Ala., schools is headed to federal appeals court and will probably not re-emerge for at least a year.

Attorneys for the school officials, resource officers and city police officers named as defendants have asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to hear two questions. First, if the case go forward as a class action; and second, if they have any official immunity.

If the court decides to hear the questions, no ruling is likely for at least a year, said Ebony Howard, an attorney with the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center.

She is lead attorney representing six youths who say officers on campus sprayed them with a chemical called Freeze+P for minor school-based infractions, including in one case, uncontrollable crying over being bullied.

The SPLC is pursuing class action because of the number of chemical spray incidents at city schools: at least 200 since 2006.

“We haven’t been able to find anywhere that used it in this way and as frequently. We have found that pepper spray has been used for normal adolescent misbehavior,” said Howard. “When it is used in other school systems even one time it’s big news.”

Indeed, a glance at recent news stories turns up several examples of chemical spray reports.

In Rochester, N.Y., a student fight downtown broken up by police using chemical spray has led to students being banned from bus routes that meander downtown. Now they must use routes that go straight to campus, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports.

Topeka High School was put on lockdown after a security guard used chemical spray to break up a fight, the Topeka Capitol-Journal says.

But there is no nationwide count of such incidents in schools.

Matt Simpson, policy strategist at the ACLU in Texas, studies law enforcement in his state’s schools. He said families have contacted his organization about “very few” pepper spray in school incidents, but there’s no way to know how many actually happen.

“There’s virtually no uniformity on use-of-force policies for law enforcement in schools” in Texas he said, adding “there’s definitely not reporting.”

Some Texas school systems, especially larger ones, set up their own law enforcement agencies with a chief of police who reports to the school superintendent. Those agencies, said Simpson, are more likely to set a use-of-force policy tailored for young people and schools.

Other school systems contract with local city or county police, meaning an officer on street duty can be called to a school. Simpson said in those cases, use-of-force rules tend to be functionally the same on campus as on the street.

For the past few years, Texas ACLU has worked on legislation that would limit the use of chemical sprays or stun guns in schools, especially banning their use on the youngest children. Simpson said they will advocate for the same thing next year.

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Maggie Lee

Freelance journalist Maggie Lee is based in Atlanta where she covers state and local governments.