Home News Center Alabama Member Sues Birmingham Police Department Over Use of Pepper Spray in Schools

Alabama Member Sues Birmingham Police Department Over Use of Pepper Spray in Schools

May 11, 2015
Zoe Schein


UPDATE (12/9/15): In May, NJJN reported on a class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center of Alabama (SPLC-AL), an NJJN member, against the Birmingham Police Department over their use of pepper spray in the city’s schools. On September 30, 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon ruled that the Birmingham police violated the constitutional rights of students by using excessive force for minor disciplinary issues like “back talking.”  

“This is a great victory for students and their families in Birmingham, and it sends a strong message to school officials across the country that it’s time to stop treating schoolchildren like they’re criminals,” said Ebony Howard, the attorney who led the SPLC’s case. “The judge recognized that this is a disturbing case and that the current system is flawed.” 

Read the SPLC’s coverage of the case.
Read the judge’s official ruling.

RELATED: Listen to Ebony Howard as a panelist on NPR: "60 Years Later, What Can Activists Learn from the Montgomery Bus Boycott?

(Original Story published May 11, 2015)

The Southern Poverty Law Center of Alabama (SPLC), an NJJN member, has long been involved in efforts to reform the way Alabama addresses school discipline, particularly in Birmingham, which is responsible for a large and disproportionate number of Alabama’s family court and school-based referrals. In the process of developing a program to reduce the number of court referrals coming out of Birmingham schools, however, it became clear that there was another disciplinary issue that threatened the safety and success of Birmingham’s students: excessive use of pepper spray.

“We started hearing about students being maced by SROs [school resource officers],” said Ebony Howard, a managing attorney at SPLC. “One [student] was walking from class and was sexually harassed by a male student and his friends; they followed her around the building and the boy continued to call her names. She got really upset and started to cry, yell back and curse at him. When the SRO got to the area, the boy who was harassing her walked away, but the SRO encountered her still crying and yelling. The officer handcuffed her, and when she continued to cry he sprayed her with mace. At the time, she was 4 months pregnant.”

The SPLC ended up filing a class action lawsuit with eight claimants, all students or former students in Birmingham, with similar stories of being pepper sprayed by SROs without justification.

“We’d originally sued the police department along with the school system,” Howard said. “But early on in the case, the school system was able to get out [of the lawsuit] with the argument that the schools aren’t required to protect students from the actions of third parties. Essentially, the schools successfully argued that they don’t have a duty to protect students from SROs, or anybody else for that matter. So that left us with the police department.”

Howard hopes that the lawsuit will spur changes in SRO training, policy, and supervision. “Since the creation of the unit in 1996, the SRO unit has only had three or four trainings. So three weeks of training since 1996, and it’s not all the same officers since then. We also want a different policy on the use of mace, because the current policy lets officers use mace with no guidance on when it’s appropriate. So they’ll use it in closed spaces where other people can be affected who haven’t done anything wrong: a classroom or a lunchroom, for example. They use it as crowd control, like if there’s a fight and there’s a crowd that won’t disperse. Finally, we want better supervision. The thing to remember is that these incidents are written in arrest reports that go up the chain of command and are signed off by the chief of police. Everyone is aware that this is happening, but right now it’s like no one at the police department thinks it’s a problem. Of course we want to hold kids accountable, but we want to hold them accountable appropriately.”

The lawsuit was tried in Alabama over four weeks in January and February of this year. The SPLC expects a verdict any day.

<- Go Back