SPLC goes to trial to curtail use of pepper spray on children in Birmingham, Ala., public schools

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When “K.B.” was a tenth-grader in a Birmingham high school, she was walking to class in tears after a boy made inappropriate sexual comments. After being told to “calm down” by a police officer, she was doused in the face with pepper spray and handcuffed.

Another student at the same school, “J.W.” was watching other students fight when he was exposed to the painful aerosol as it drifted across the bystanders.

Both former students are plaintiffs in the SPLC’s 2010 class action suit claiming that police stationed in the schools used excessive force on children in violation of their constitutional rights. It seeks to curtail the use of chemical weapons in the Birmingham Public Schools system.

The suit against the police department goes to trial today in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District for Alabama, Southern Division.

“Our clients are looking forward to their day in court,” said Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney in the lawsuit. “We believe the repeated use of chemical weapons on children in Birmingham schools is not only excessive, unreasonable and entirely inappropriate – but unconstitutional as well. These dangerous weapons should never be used as a punitive measure or when a child represents no threat to anyone.”

From 2006 to 2011, police in Birmingham public schools – whose students are predominantly African American – used chemical weapons on about 300 students. More than 1,000 others were exposed to the spray during those incidents. By contrast, in the neighboring, largely suburban Jefferson County schools, chemical spray was used just once during that same period.

The SPLC suit alleges that many students were already restrained or posed no safety threat when they were pepper-sprayed. Others were bystanders.

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