The NAACP launched an online petition this week, inviting people to lend their names to a campaign to end the use of pepper spray on students in Birmingham, Al. public schools.
“As long as we continue to treat students like criminals, they will grow up to become criminals,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, in a written statement.
The NAACP argues that Mace and pepper spray may be legitimate parts of an adult or crowd policing strategy, but are not acceptable for use on school children. Birmingham’s public school population is overwhelmingly African-American.
The petition comes as wrangling in U.S. District Court over the practice reaches nearly the two-year mark. In December, 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit for damages on behalf of six defendants, and also asked for pepper sprays to be banned. They alleged that Birmingham police officers in the school used the chemical as a first resort and as punishment, among other charges.
“Mace is used so frequently and so indiscriminately in Birmingham’s public high schools that each Class Representative [defendant] — and all BCS students — faces a real and substantial risk of future and repeated injury,” the original complaint read.
Birmingham’s Board of Education and schools superintendent have been dismissed from the case, though six city police officers, the police chief and a high school assistant principal are still on the docket.
A spokeswoman for Birmingham City Schools declined comment.
Police carry the mace because it its part of their “daily equipment,” a police spokesman is quoted in Birmingham media.
The Birmingham police spokesman could not immediately be reached for any further comment.
In a written statement, Hezekiah Jackson IV, Metro Birmingham Branch NAACP president said, “we as a community must end this form of archaic police disciplinary response, implement alternative strategies and create an atmosphere in which all children of Birmingham can feel protected and comfortable.”
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Teens in Birmingham, Ala. schools have been routinely sprayed with mace and pepper spray as punishment for minor offenses. The Southern Poverty Law Center has now filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Birmingham City School District on behalf of students who've had chemicals used on them.
“We must ask ourselves, what kind of school system allows armed officers to come in and use mace on its children,” said Ebony Glenn Howard, lead attorney on the case for the Center.
Hundreds of students were arrested in the Birmingham City Schools last year for minor offenses that could have been taken care of in the principal’s office, according to the Center. The SPLC threatened to sue the Birmingham School Board last month if the Board did not agree to stop the practice of spraying kids, according to the Birmingham News.
The lawsuit claims the use of chemical weapons against children to enforce basic school discipline is unconstitutional. The Center is seeking financial damages for students and their parents.
The lawsuit also details how mace is used against restrained kids who pose no threat to themselves or others.
The suit points out that kids who are exposed to pepper spray and mace are at risk for several health effects, ranging from temporary vision loss to eye and skin blistering. They can also get life threatening symptoms like throat inflammation and swelling, which could make it hard for a child to breathe.
WBRC-TV tried to get in touch with the Birmingham School District and still has not gotten a response.
To read the full lawsuit, click here.