Alabama Schools Facing Lawsuit over Use of Pepper Spray

Last Updated: February 24, 2011

This article appeared in the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has brought a civil rights lawsuit against the school board of Birmingham City Schools and the Birmingham police chief on behalf of seven students who say they were brutalized by school resource officers (SROs). All seven students allege that they were “maced” for various relatively low-level rule violations and that SROS are heavily involved in school incidents, including very minor ones. One student has since dropped out of school.

One issue in the case is the health risk associated with exposure to pepper spray by asthmatics. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cited in the complaint, African-Americans are three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than White students. Enrollment in Birmingham City Schools is 96% African-American.

SPLC had sent a letter to the school board’s attorney last November asking the district to stop the practice, but that request was rebuffed.

For several years, the Birmingham schools have been working under a unique agreement with the Birmingham Family Court to reduce referrals of students to the court, but the judge coordinating that effort said that this lawsuit indicates that “there's still a great deal of progress to be made.”

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Read more from the February 2011 Rural Policy Matters.