Alabama lawyer seeks to remind school-based police that students are still children

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Last September, a federal court in Alabama ruled that the Birmingham Police Department’s disciplinary practices, including the use of pepper spray for minor discipline problems, is in violation of student rights and unconstitutional.

Attorney Ebony Howard of the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the class-action suit, and returns to court next month when the police department’s appeal is heard.

As part of our year-long Race Matters conversations focusing on solutions, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault reports from Birmingham about reducing tensions between African-American high school students and the police.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: This video of a white South Carolina policeman roughly ejecting a black student from her classroom went viral and ignited a conversation about the proper role for police in schools.

Ebony Howard, a lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been involved in that conversation as a result of her successful suit against police macing students in Montgomery, Alabama.

Ebony Howard, thank you for joining us.

EBONY HOWARD, Southern Poverty Law Center: Thank you for having me.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Can you tell us briefly about the case you won in Birmingham last year?

EBONY HOWARD: Sure.

The case was about police officers who are stationed in Birmingham City high schools who are there to protect students, and they were using mace, or pepper spray is what it’s sometimes called, against students for engaging in what amounts to normal adolescent behavior.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Like what?

EBONY HOWARD: Like, for example, one of our plaintiffs, plaintiff K.B., she was leaving class and going to another class with a fellow classmate. And as she walked, a boy came up to her and started to call her really foul names that I won’t repeat.

But as he called her those names, his friends who had come with him, they started to laugh. And the more they laughed, the more names he called her. And so she tried to walk away from him. And as she walked away, he followed her and his friends followed her, and he continued to call her lots and lots of names.

And so eventually, as she walked the entire length of the school building, she started to cry. And she became hysterical. And when she reached the end of the school building, a police officer walked up. And you would think that he would have taken care of her, but what he did was, he told her to calm down or he was going to arrest her.

And when she didn’t stop crying, he put her in handcuffs. And she continued to cry after he handcuffed her, and he told her, calm down. And when she didn’t calm down fast enough, he sprayed her with mace.

The other point that I forgot to mention, though, was that she was four months’ pregnant at the time when he sprayed her with mace. She was arrested and taken to the local juvenile facility, where she had to take off her pants and her underwear and squat and cough as a part of a strip search.

And so those are the kinds of things that were happening in Birmingham City schools.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Now, you argued the things that are happening to black students, with examples like the ones you just gave, are very different from what happens in white schools.

Tell me just how different.

EBONY HOWARD: Right.

So, for example, the Birmingham City School System is 99 percent African-American; 85 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch. In contrast, a neighboring school district, the Jefferson County School District, is much more integrated, has far more white students.

In the past 10 years, police officers who are in the Jefferson County School District have used mace 10 times. That’s over 10 years. In contrast, during a five-year period in Birmingham City, almost 300 students were sprayed with mace.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, what do you say to the critics who say that a lot of these kids are violent, that some are gang members, and that they get into horrendous fights and things like that in these schools and need to be controlled by the police?

EBONY HOWARD: There is no question that many of the students that are in school districts like the Birmingham City School District have very big challenges to overcome with regard to socioeconomic status and poverty.

But I would also say that a lot of this talk, a lot of this rhetoric is just propaganda.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You’re saying that most of what these young people who have been maced have been doing, in other schools, are regarded as normal adolescent behavior that gets punished, but not in the same way.

EBONY HOWARD: That is precisely right, that when a black boy engages in a certain type of misbehavior, there is a perception that that is criminal.

In contrast, when a white boy in a different school district does the same thing, that is perceived as adolescent misconduct. That’s an inequity that black children and Latino children have to live with in this country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, the police, of course, defended the actions of the police, saying that these children deserved what they got.

And yet the judge, in his ruling, affirmed your protest.

EBONY HOWARD: Right.

You know, what I thought was the most striking about the findings of fact and conclusions of law that the judge issue was that he recognized that these are children, that these are adolescents, and that the police officers, at least the ones who were the defendants in this case, didn’t quite understand that, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

The judge said that, regardless, it is clear that Chief A.C. Roper, the chief of police for the Birmingham Police Department, at a minimum needs to provide officers who are stationed in the Birmingham City schools with training on school-based policing.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You worked with the chiefs are other police leaders to work on this problem, and what’s going on?

EBONY HOWARD: The judge ordered that we get with the defendants to meet and confer on developing a plan that would guide law enforcement training for school-based policing, as well as policies and procedures on school-based policing for Birmingham City schools.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, how is that going?

EBONY HOWARD: So, we have met. And we agree on some things, but were unable to reach a consensus on other things.

And the chief of police has told us that he intends to appeal and has gone through the process of appealing. And we believe that the point of public education in America is not just to teach kids academics, but to teach them how to be citizens, how to be adults. And that involves learning how to manage conflict, learning how to work with each other, learning how to respect people and that, during that process, they will make mistakes.

They may fight, they may talk back, they may do things that we don’t want them to do. And the role of teachers and principals and police officers are to teach them how to interact with each other.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what is the solution?

EBONY HOWARD: The first thing is that, if we’re going to have officers in our schools, then they need to be trained. They need not be biased with regard to race or socioeconomic status for the students that they are working with.

And then the more fundamental thing and the harder thing is that, when each of us looks at these kids, we need to see our own. We see someone who could be our daughter, our son, niece, our nephew, our cousin, our own babies, rather than seeing an other. And that’s not happening.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Ebony Howard, thank you.

EBONY HOWARD: Thank you so much.

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