As reported by Weld and scores of other news outlets, Birmingham schools have been embroiled in controversy recently, with the State of Alabama Board of Education assuming control of the system.
However, that is not the only problem facing city schools.
Last week, the NAACP released an online petition asking Birmingham Mayor William Bell to ban the use of Mace as a form of restraint or moderation by the police in the Birmingham Public Schools and to instruct the Birmingham Police Department (BPD) to develop and put in place policies appropriate to the policing of children for all officers assigned to work in the schools.
The NAACP, according to their news release, was responding to what it said were reports that more than 200 African-American high-school students have been the victim of the use of mace.
“Mace and pepper spray may be legitimate parts of an adult or crowd policing strategy, but they are not acceptable for use on school children,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in the release. “This is an unequivocal abuse of our young men and women. As long as we continue to treat students like criminals, they will grow up to become criminals.”
“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,” said Hezekiah Jackson IV, president of the Metro Birmingham branch of the NAACP.
An August 30 report by Maggie Lee at the website of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE) noted that a legal battle over the use of chemical spray in the Birminghamschools has gone on in U.S. District Court for almost two years.
In December 2010, according to the JJIE web post, the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery filed a suit for damages on behalf of six defendants and also asked that the use of pepper sprays in the schools be banned. The SPLC, among other charges, alleged that Birmingham police officers in the school used the chemical as a first resort and as punishment.
The SPLC announced September 5 that a federal court had granted class-action status in the suit against the BPD, meaning the organization will represent all current and future students who could be exposed to pepper spray at the hands of police officers stationed in the city’s schools.
According to the JJIE, the original SPLC complaint stated that “mace is used so frequently and so indiscriminately inBirmingham’s public high schools that each Class Representative [defendant]… faces a real and substantial risk of future and repeated injury.”
In a post at the SPLC web site in December 2011, the civil-rights group alleges that Birmingham police on duty in the schools use pepper spray “in the eyes and mouths of children as punishment for engaging in normal adolescent misbehavior – like crying, cursing, hair pulling and fighting.”
In addition to the physical effects of the sprays, the SPLC charges, “Students who have been brutalized in this way end up distrusting authority figures and being pushed out of school, effectively cutting their education short.”
According to an August 16 report by Edward Burch of ABC-TV 33/40, 16-year-old Porscha Stearnes, who said she and her sister were among those pepper sprayed while at Huffman High School, was one of the students who filed suit – along with the SPLC – against the Birmingham Police Department.
“Mace is dangerous, a chemical weapon that should not be allowed in schools,” Stearnes’ mother said. “This horrible practice causes fear in the place where students should feel save and free to learn.”
According to the report by Burch, Sgt. Johnny Williams, BPD public information officer, said that the school resource officers are allowed to carry mace simply because it’s “part of their daily equipment.”
But an SPLC lawyer told Burch, “The idea is to have a policy in place that puts appropriate limits on when officers can use mace on students.” The SPLC also wants officers to be trained so that they know how to operate in a school environment.
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