The Birmingham Police Department continues to fight a lawsuit arising from officers using chemical defensive sprays against students.
Attorneys for the police department recently appealed a summary judgment which keeps the case moving forward, after the Southern Poverty Law Center successfully argued that the case should proceed as a class action. The BPD filed an appeal on Monday, which gives Montgomery-based SPLC 30 days to respond.
The lawsuit was originally filed by six students against the BPD and the Birmingham Board of Education. The school board was later dismissed from the case. The SPLC argued that the six original plaintiffs in the case should be allowed to stand for all students in the school system.
“We moved for class certification, meaning the students sought to represent the interests of all current and future high school students in the [city school system] by challenging this policy that allows Mace to be used against them,” said Ebony Howard, the lead SPLC attorney representing the students.
According to Howard, circumstances leading to some of the cases involve normal but non-violent student behavior, such as talking back, yelling or crying.
“We’re not saying Mace is never an appropriate response,” Howard said. “What we’re saying is that the way it is used in routine fashion in Birmingham is unlawful.”
The problem, she argued, is that the board of education allowed officers into the schools — who are designated Student Resource Officers despite not being trained to deal with youth — without requiring them to know how to work in this environment.
In one instance, a student accused of smoking cigarettes was allegedly tripped by an assistant principal, who put his foot on her back to hold her down. When she got up, she was restrained by three school staff members, while being sprayed by a police officer.
Howard contends that other school systems face the same disciplinary issues without their SROs resorting to such extreme methods of force.
“For example, the Jefferson County School System has had about five instances of Macing students in the past 12 years. In the Birmingham City system there have been over 200 instances since 2006,” Howard said.
Chief Deputy Randy Christian of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department said Howard’s account portrayed his agency accurately, although he could not verify the exact number of Macing incidents. Christian said at least two of those incidents involved adults.
Birmingham schools should find other ways of dealing with students, Howard said. “Rather than finding ways to have discipline practices that are effective, not hurtful and do not create more trauma for these kids, they have resorted to turning over discipline authority to cops. You can see this in the amount of arrests that occur in Birmingham City Schools, largely for misdemeanors,” she said.
In 2009, The Birmingham News reported that, in the previous school year, city schools made up 25 percent of the student population in Jefferson County, but accounted for 82 percent of the kids referred to the Jefferson County Family Court for school-based arrests.
The SPLC seeks to fix a “broken discipline system” by making the use of defensive sprays a last resort and finding a more effective way to deal with youth. This would largely be taken care of with comprehensive training, in which SROs are carefully selected and trained to work in schools and deescalate situations properly, said Howard.
And until a decision is made in the courts, it seems that the use of defensive sprays will continue. “None of our policies have changed as far as our officers using their assigned equipment,” said Sgt. Johnny Williams, public information officer for the BPD.
The use of defensive sprays is up to the discretion of the police officer, depending on the particular situation at hand, said Williams.
The Birmingham City Attorney’s office did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this story.
Despite removal from the lawsuit, city school officials declined to comment on the lawsuit or controversy surrounding the use of defensive sprays.