By Rania Khalek - An alarming series of incidents offers some insight into how casual police have become about deploying "less lethal" weapons...
In April, the Wichita Eagle reported on Jonathan Villarreal, a sophomore at Derby High School who was ordered to pull his pants up by two school police officers [ also known as School Resource Officers, or SROs] while walking to the bus after school. The 17-year-old refused, arguing that he “could wear them how he wanted because school was out.” According to Villarreal, corroborated by three student witnesses, one officer “pulled him to the ground by the neck and told him to stop resisting arrest,” which Villarreal denied he was doing.
The officers then “kneed him in the back and neck while he was on the ground.” As he struggled to get up, Villarreal was repeatedly “pushed back down,” at which point “he felt his arm break.” As Villarreal was held on the ground by two officers with a broken arm, “one officer fired a Taser at his chest.”
A police department investigation determined that the officers were “justified and reasonable” in their response because Villarreal was allegedly “yelling racial slurs at a group of students” and resisting arrest, which they faulted for the teen’s broken arm. Although a lawsuit was never filed, the police department made several changes in Derby’s SRO policies to help reduce potential abuse.
On September 29, Keshana Wilson, 14, was shocked in the groin with a Taser while shoved against a parked car by Allentown, Pennsylvania police officer Jason Ammary, just outside her high school. The incident was captured on surveillance footage. Allentown police argue that the officer’s behavior was justified because “Wilson was cursing and inciting a group of people” as well as resisting arrest. While defending his fellow officer, Allentown Assistant Police Chief Joseph Hanna argued, “officers are trained to use the justified amount of force dictated by the actions of the resister, not their age or gender.”
Zahrod Jackson, a 17-year-old student, “was eligible to receive free lunch” at Middletown High School in Connecticut, according to a June report in the Middletown Press. Last September, Jackson exited the cafeteria line with a slice of pizza, but returned for a beef patty after spotting both pizza and a beef patty on the tray of a student who also receives free lunch. A screaming match ensued between Jackson and a cafeteria worker who accused the teen of stealing. The commotion quickly caught the eyes of SROs Kurt Scrivo, who “threw Jackson onto the cafeteria floor,” and Alex Rodriguez, who Tasered him five times.
Jackson’s mother filed a federal lawsuit against Middletown for violating her son’s fourth and 14th amendment rights. Meanwhile, the Middletown Press reports that the incident prompted a temporary withdrawal of SROs from the city’s schools. Months later, the school board voted to bring back the SROs minus the Tasers.
In October, Florida’s Flagler County School Board joined the nation’s Taser-toting school districts, voting 4-1 to allow SROs to carry the “less-lethal” weapons. Prior to the vote, Kate Settle, whose child attends a Flagler school, gave a moving speech begging the board to keep the classroom Taser-free. She feared that her severely autistic son might one day have an outburst that might be misinterpreted by police, who are untrained in recognizing the behavior of children with special needs.
Settle has good reason to be nervous. In 2007, before Tasers were even allowed on campus, 16-year-old Laurence Gibson, a Flagler special education student, was zapped after becoming agitated with his teacher for correcting him and then refusing a deputy’s orders to “sprawl on the floor.” Sadly, Gibson’s experience follows a pattern of cruel treatment towards disobedient special-needs children.
Adding Pepper-Spray to the Mix
The use of non-lethal weapons to discipline school kids isn't limited to Tasers.
Last year, a 7-year-old special education student whom the San Francisco Chronicle described as having “learning difficulties, dyslexia, anxiety disorder and social-skill problems” was doused in the face with pepper-spray by a police officer called into the classroom by teachers unable to handle the child's temper tantrum. The boy’s parents have since filed a federal lawsuit against San Mateo on the grounds that their son was treated like a “common criminal.” The Chronicle describes the lead-up to the decision to call the police:
On June 10, 2010, the boy refused to do a classroom assignment, left the campus and was forcibly returned to school by classroom aides. Agitated, he threw chairs in a classroom and climbed on top of a bookshelf and a cabinet, refusing to come down, said the suit the family filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
George "Randy" Heald, the officer who anwered the call, told Adam that "if he did not come down by the count of five, he would be pepper-sprayed.” Heald explained to a confused Adam that pepper spray “was like hot pepper and that it would make (him) cry and maybe throw up." The Chronicle reports:
Heald counted backward from five and then "blasted pepper spray in Adam's face," prompting the 51-pound boy to cry in pain, rub his face and come down from the cabinet, the suit said. The boy was then committed for a psychiatric evaluation.
Chemical-exposure expert Kamran Loghman told the Chronicle that Heald’s actions were completely over the line. “You don't use a weapon on a child unless he had something that is extremely dangerous in his hand, that may cause death to himself or others, like a gun,” Loghman said.
"Many of us have children who almost on a daily basis don't listen to their parents. What do we do? Throw vinegar on them? Pepper-spray them? As adults, we have to remain adult-centered, try to be calm and take situations under control."
Loghman would be shocked to learn the rate at which chemical irritants are deployed against schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Southern Poverty Law Center found that pepper-spray has been used on students nearly 100 times in the last five years, more than any other school system in the country. Among the victims were “a 17-year-old girl who was four months pregnant when she was pepper-sprayed, and an 18-year-old girl who has a heart murmur.”
The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit last year against Birmingham city schools and the Birmingham police department on behalf of eight students. The lawsuit seeks compensation for individual damages as well as a permanent ban on the use of pepper spray on students. “The use of such weapons against schoolchildren is a clear and egregious violation of students' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution,” argues the SPLC. "Moreover, the use of chemical weapons on school children is detrimental to their health and psychological well-being."