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.
According to a recent report from The Jackson Free Press, conditions at a Hinds County, Miss. youth detention center have not improved, despite a federal settlement agreement from earlier this year that sought to address and improve the facility’s problems.
In August, Leonard Dixon, a Michigan-based juvenile-justice expert, filed a federal court complaint alleging that the Henley-Young Juvenile Justice Center has not complied with the provisions of a settlement that would provide juvenile detainees with mental-health evaluations, counseling sessions and improved rehabilitation options, among other services, The Jackson Free Press reported.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Disability Rights Mississippi filed the original class-action lawsuit that instigated the settlement agreement in 2011. The lawsuit further alleged that juveniles were often subject to verbal and physical abuse from staffers.
Corrie Cockrell, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mississippi office, told The Free Press that since the settlement agreement, Hinds County officials have not addressed a number of “basic issues” at the facility, alleging that the conditions at Henley-Young remain substandard.
"Five months have passed since we reached the settlement agreement, yet Hinds County has failed to comply with a single term of the agreement,” Cockrell told the Associated Press. “It is unconscionable that the county continues to subject some of our most vulnerable youth to these inhumane conditions.”
According to Dixon, the building itself is in subpar condition and requires immediate repair work. Furthermore, he cites inadequate staffing and leadership turnover as perhaps the root causes of the facility’s difficulties, asserting that management instability has created “chaos and a lack of direction” at the center.
"I found the facility staff not to be neglectful or abusive, but the lack of staffing and structure creates an environment that is neglectful and abusive,” Dixon wrote in his recent court filing.
“It is my opinion that Hinds County is committed to this process, but there is a need for consistent leadership at the facility.”
We all want our schools to be safe and orderly. Our teachers should be able to focus on teaching and our children should be able to focus on learning. Sadly though, the effort to instill greater discipline into our schools has backfired. Instead of creating classrooms conducive to learning, schools have enacted policies that criminalize students and force teachers to spend more time on classroom management than teaching –- an approach that better prepares students to be inmates than members of the workforce.
Currently, this country imprisons 2.2 million people -– the highest incarceration rate in the world. One out of nine African-American men ages 20-34 is behind bars. This is a civil rights crisis -– one that begins in our country’s schools.
The Southern Poverty Law Center works to keep children in schools and out of the juvenile justice system by reforming the way teachers discipline students. We work with many youth who are led away from their classrooms in handcuffs and imprisoned because of over-policing in their schools and zero-tolerance policies. Others are pushed out of schools as a result of disciplinary sanctions.
Most of the youth we work with attend schools where administrators and teachers believe fear and an overly punitive environment are the only way to maintain safety. While students must be held accountable for their actions and behave appropriately, studies have shown that when students experience harsh discipline practices they are less likely to graduate.
Exclusionary school discipline policies don’t just disconnect students from the learning environment. These policies disconnect entire families from schools and create conflict between parents and teachers who should be working together to ensure positive outcomes for students. This disconnect from the public schools is often intergenerational for families. Many parents, who were removed from schools because of ineffective and harsh disciplinary policies, are now raising children who receive the same treatment.
This is why the Southern Poverty Law Center has worked with communities to bring reform throughout the Southeast where low graduation and imprisonment rates are skyrocketing. Our efforts are currently focused on Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi – four states where children are most at risk of being pushed out of school and ending up in the juvenile justice system.
Quite simply, there are too many schools where typical adolescent misbehavior that once resulted in a trip to the principal’s office now lands a student before a juvenile court judge.
This includes some of the youth we work with such as six students in one Alabama school who together missed more than 445 school days last school year. These absences were due to suspensions for apparent minor misbehavior such as un-tucked shirts, tardiness or failing to carry a school ID. And a student in a Mississippi school was shackled to a railing for an entire school day because the student did not wear a belt to school. The student was even forced to eat lunch while handcuffed. One of our youngest clients, an 8-year-old Louisiana student was handcuffed and shackled after getting into a scuffle with a classmate.
Fortunately, others are recognizing this crisis. Last month, the departments of Justice and Education announced The Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI), which will work with state and local education and justice officials to support effective and positive discipline policies. Its goal is to combat this phenomenon where school discipline policies push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.
This is a step in the right direction that is long overdue -– particularly for the South where harsh discipline policies are taking a devastating toll.
For example, while the national graduation rate is 75 percent, states across the South have much lower graduation rates averaging less than 70 percent. In Louisiana alone, more than 15,000 students in the 7th through 12th grades were pushed out of school during the 2007- 08 school year. Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi had similarly low graduation rates at 69 percent, 65 percent and 64 percent respectively.
When students fail to graduate, communities suffer. This cost, according to national and government studies, includes millions of dollars in lost economic activity, increased social costs and crime. These discipline policies affect us all.
The launch of the SSDI is an encouraging sign that the federal government is recognizing this crisis within our schools. It sends a much-needed message to educators that pushing students out of school over minor misbehavior is misguided and dangerous policy.
For too long, schools across the country have promoted discipline policies that groomed students for the criminal justice system. Change has long been needed. The SSDI is a powerful signal it may be on its way.
Sheila Bedi is deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center where she leads the efforts on behalf of children in Mississippi and Louisiana and provides strategic guidance on select campaigns in other states.