Ruling Ensures Current and Future Students At Risk Are Represented
Birmingham, Ala. – A federal court has ruled that all current and future Birmingham City students will be represented in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) lawsuit against the Birmingham Police Department which seeks to end the use of pepper-spray on students by police officers stationed in the city schools. The ruling makes the SPLC’s case a class action lawsuit against the Birmingham Police Department on behalf of these students. “The court’s ruling is a huge victory for all Birmingham students who risk being exposed to pepper-spray each day they attend school,” said Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney in the lawsuit. “These students should be able to go to school to learn, not in fear for their safety. Today’s ruling is an opportunity for Chief A.C. Roper and Mayor Bell to stand up and say they will protect Birmingham’s youth and end the unconstitutional practice of pepper spraying students.” The ruling, issued by U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon of the Northern District of Alabama, outlines how each pepper-spray incident on school grounds is directly related to the policies and practices of the Birmingham Police Department. Without class action status, the lawsuit would benefit only a handful of students. The SPLC lawsuit, filed in December 2010, detailed how pepper spray is used against children who are completely restrained and pose no threat to themselves or others in school. The majority of incidents are for petty offenses that schools typically address with a trip to the principal’s office. Porschea Stearnes, now an 18-year-old student at Huffman High School, was pepper-sprayed by a police officer at school when she was 16. The incident started when a boy pushed her sister. When her sister defended herself, a police officer grabbed her from behind and doused her in the face. When Stearnes saw the incident, she ran to help her sister and was caught in the mist of chemicals. “I’ve never been in trouble before,” Stearnes said. “I was not threatening anyone, and I was not violent. The police officer should not have pepper-sprayed me. Pepper spray has no place in Birmingham schools. It’s unacceptable for students like me to be in danger at school.” Police officers stationed in Birmingham schools currently are regulated only by the Birmingham Police Department’s general policy on “Chemical Spray Subject Restraint.” The department has not provided officers with specific training or guidelines on the appropriate use of pepper spray in a school setting. The Birmingham Board of Education approved the placement of police officers in schools in January 1996. Over a five-year period beginning in 2006, officers used pepper spray on approximately 200 students. During the same period, the neighboring Jefferson County Board of Education recorded only one instance of pepper spray being used against a student.