An alarming series of incidents offers some insight into how casual police have become about deploying "less lethal" weapons.
There is something truly disturbing about a society that seeks to control the behavior of schoolchildren through fear and violence, a tactic that harkens back to an era of paddle-bruised behinds and ruler-slapped wrists. Yet, some American school districts are pushing the boundaries of corporal punishment even further with the use of Tasers against unruly schoolchildren.
The deployment of Tasers against “problem” students coincides with the introduction of police officers on school campuses, also known as School Resource Officers (SROs). According to the Los Angeles Times, as of 2009, the number of SROs carrying Tasers was well over 4,000.
As far back as 1988, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, National Congress of Parents and Teachers, American Medical Association, National Education Association, American Bar Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics recognized that inflicting pain and fear upon disobedient children is far more harmful than helpful. Yet, we continue to do it with disturbing results, despite mountains of evidence of more effective methods of discipline.
Torturing Kids Into Compliance
Neil Davison, author of "Non-Lethal” Weapons, has carried out extensive research on the history of weapons like the Taser, used to subdue individuals without causing permanent injury or death.
In a 2006 study on the early history of less-lethal weapons, Davison observes, “Electrical-shock weapons have their roots not in policing or riot control but in farming and torture.” He references Argentina, which replaced the barbed cattle prod “with an electrical version, the picana electrica, in the 1930s” which is considered “the first electronic stun technology” and “was soon adopted by the Argentinean police as a torture device for use during interrogation.” Davison adds that an “examination of the US patent record illustrates the close connection between the development of electrical weapons for use against animals, which had been patented from the early 1900’s onwards, and those for use against humans.”
Basically, the devices used to control animals and torture Argentineans, both abhorrent practices, have entered the realm of school discipline...and the results have been appalling, to say the least.
In April, the Wichita Eagle reported on Jonathan Villarreal, a sophomore at Derby High School who was ordered to pull his pants up by two school police officers while walking to the bus after school. The 17-year-old refused, arguing that he “could wear them how he wanted because school was out.” According to Villarreal, corroborated by three student witnesses, one officer “pulled him to the ground by the neck and told him to stop resisting arrest,” which Villarreal denied he was doing.
The officers then “kneed him in the back and neck while he was on the ground.” As he struggled to get up, Villarreal was repeatedly “pushed back down,” at which point “he felt his arm break.” As Villarreal was held on the ground by two officers with a broken arm, “one officer fired a Taser at his chest.”
A police department investigation determined that the officers were “justified and reasonable” in their response because Villarreal was allegedly “yelling racial slurs at a group of students” and resisting arrest, which they faulted for the teen’s broken arm. Although a lawsuit was never filed, the police department made several changes in Derby’s SRO policies to help reduce potential abuse.
On September 29, Keshana Wilson, 14, was shocked in the groin with a Taser while shoved against a parked car by Allentown, Pennsylvania police officer Jason Ammary, just outside her high school. The incident was captured on surveillance footage. Allentown police argue that the officer’s behavior was justified because “Wilson was cursing and inciting a group of people” as well as resisting arrest. While defending his fellow officer, Allentown Assistant Police Chief Joseph Hanna argued, “officers are trained to use the justified amount of force dictated by the actions of the resister, not their age or gender.”
Zahrod Jackson, a 17-year-old student, “was eligible to receive free lunch” at Middletown High School in Connecticut, according to a June report in the Middletown Press. Last September, Jackson exited the cafeteria line with a slice of pizza, but returned for a beef patty after spotting both pizza and a beef patty on the tray of a student who also receives free lunch. A screaming match ensued between Jackson and a cafeteria worker who accused the teen of stealing. The commotion quickly caught the eyes of SROs Kurt Scrivo, who “threw Jackson onto the cafeteria floor,” and Alex Rodriguez, who Tasered him five times.
Jackson’s mother filed a federal lawsuit against Middletown for violating her son’s fourth and 14th amendment rights. Meanwhile, the Middletown Press reports that the incident prompted a temporary withdrawal of SROs from the city’s schools. Months later, the school board voted to bring back the SROs minus the Tasers.
Corporal Punishment on Steroids
In October, Florida’s Flagler County School Board joined the nation’s Taser-toting school districts, voting 4-1 to allow SROs to carry the “less-lethal” weapons. Prior to the vote, Kate Settle, whose child attends a Flagler school, gave a moving speech begging the board to keep the classroom Taser-free. She feared that her severely autistic son might one day have an outburst that might be misinterpreted by police, who are untrained in recognizing the behavior of children with special needs.
Settle has good reason to be nervous. In 2007, before Tasers were even allowed on campus, 16-year-old Laurence Gibson, a Flagler special education student, was zapped after becoming agitated with his teacher for correcting him and then refusing a deputy’s orders to “sprawl on the floor.” Sadly, Gibson’s experience follows a pattern of cruel treatment towards disobedient special-needs children.
A joint investigation carried out by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch found that students with disabilities “are subjected to violent discipline at disproportionately high rates.” Students with disabilities made up 19 percent of the nearly 250,000 public school students subjected to “violent” and “degrading” punishment in the 2006-2007 school year, despite being just 14 percent of the student population. Autistic students in particular, were “likely to be punished for behaviors common to their condition, stemming from difficulties with appropriate social behavior.”
Cruel punishments were also disproportionately dished out to black students, who during that same school year made up 35.6 percent of abused students but only 17.1 percent of the nationwide student population.
Furthermore, corporal punishment has a detrimental impact on not only the physical but mental wellbeing of students. According to the report:
As a consequence of the helplessness and humiliation felt by those who experience corporal punishment, some students become angry or depressed. Several parents of students with disabilities reported that their children became more aggressive, more likely to lash out at peers or family members, and more likely to injure themselves. Students may become withdrawn and deeply reluctant to go back to school.
Given the discriminatory application and damaging effects spankings and paddles have on schoolchildren, the harm caused by a Taser probably fares no better.
A ‘Nonlethal’ Weapon That Kills?
In the age of school shootings, the presence of school officers armed with “non-lethal” Tasers may seem appealing to parents and school administrators. But the term non-lethal is highly misleading. While Taser International has long maintained that its products are safe, the hundreds of documented Taser-related deaths suggest otherwise.
According to a 2008 Amnesty International report, there were 351 Taser-related deaths in the United States between June 2001 and August 2008, an average of some four deaths per month. Moreover, about 90 percent of the victims were unarmed and did not appear to pose any serious threat. In Amnesty's US 2010 report, the Taser-related death toll had increased to 390. Taser-related deaths have continued to garner headlines, most recently in August when three people died in Taser-related incidents over a single weekend.
Since 2005, when a Chicago teen went into ventricular fibrillation due to a Taser shock, doctors have insisted that Tasers can cause cardiac arrest. Nevertheless, Taser International continues to assert that there is no conclusive evidence proving that Tasers can cause heart disturbances, even after the company warned police officers in a 2009 training bulletin that shooting at the chest could cause an “adverse cardiac event.”
The company claims their product is safe even for kids. But a team of cardiologists at the University of California, San Francisco, recently discovered that existing Taser-related safety research “may be biased due to ties to the devices’ manufacturer, Taser International Inc.” Of the 50 studies analyzed, report the authors, “the likelihood of a study concluding Taser devices are safe was 75 percent higher when the studies were either funded by the manufacturer or written by authors affiliated with the company, than when studies were conducted independently.” The findings are striking:
Nearly all (96 percent) of the Taser-supported articles concluded the devices were either “unlikely harmful” (26 percent) or “not harmful” (70 percent). In contrast, of the 27 studies not affiliated with Taser International, 55 percent found that Tasers are either “unlikely harmful” (29 percent) or “not harmful” (26 percent).
It has long been understood that Tasers pose a particularly high risk to pregnant women, the elderly, young children and individuals with underlying medical conditions. While the company has communicated this risk to law enforcement, studies have confirmed time and again that police departments use the weapons on vulnerable populations.
The most recent analysis of Taser use, released by the New York Civil Liberties Union in October, found that 40 percent of the state’s Taser incidents “involved at-risk subjects, such as children, the elderly, the visibly infirm and individuals who are seriously intoxicated or mentally ill.” Even more alarming, over a quarter “involved shocks directly to subjects’ chest area, despite explicit warnings by the weapon’s manufacturer that targeting the chest can cause cardiac arrest.”
The NYCLU’s conclusion that “an absence of sound policies, training and guidelines to direct the lawful use of Tasers is contributing to the disturbing pattern of misuse and overuse of the weapons” raises serious questions about the wisdom of deploying these weapons against children.
Adding Pepper-Spray to the Mix
The use of non-lethal weapons to discipline school kids isn't limited to Tasers.
Last year, a 7-year-old special education student whom the San Francisco Chronicle described as having “learning difficulties, dyslexia, anxiety disorder and social-skill problems” was doused in the face with pepper-spray by a police officer called into the classroom by teachers unable to handle the child's temper tantrum. The boy’s parents have since filed a federal lawsuit against San Mateo on the grounds that their son was treated like a “common criminal.” The Chronicle describes the lead-up to the decision to call the police:
On June 10, 2010, the boy refused to do a classroom assignment, left the campus and was forcibly returned to school by classroom aides. Agitated, he threw chairs in a classroom and climbed on top of a bookshelf and a cabinet, refusing to come down, said the suit the family filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
George "Randy" Heald, the officer who anwered the call, told Adam that "if he did not come down by the count of five, he would be pepper-sprayed.” Heald explained to a confused Adam that pepper spray “was like hot pepper and that it would make (him) cry and maybe throw up." The Chronicle reports:
Heald counted backward from five and then "blasted pepper spray in Adam's face," prompting the 51-pound boy to cry in pain, rub his face and come down from the cabinet, the suit said. The boy was then committed for a psychiatric evaluation.
Chemical-exposure expert Kamran Loghman told the Chronicle that Heald’s actions were completely over the line. “You don't use a weapon on a child unless he had something that is extremely dangerous in his hand, that may cause death to himself or others, like a gun,” Loghman said.
"Many of us have children who almost on a daily basis don't listen to their parents. What do we do? Throw vinegar on them? Pepper-spray them? As adults, we have to remain adult-centered, try to be calm and take situations under control."
Loghman would be shocked to learn the rate at which chemical irritants are deployed against schoolchildren in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Southern Poverty Law Center found that pepper-spray has been used on students nearly 100 times in the last five years, more than any other school system in the country. Among the victims were “a 17-year-old girl who was four months pregnant when she was pepper-sprayed, and an 18-year-old girl who has a heart murmur.”
The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit last year against Birmingham city schools and the Birmingham police department on behalf of eight students. The lawsuit seeks compensation for individual damages as well as a permanent ban on the use of pepper spray on students. “The use of such weapons against schoolchildren is a clear and egregious violation of students' rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution,” argues the SPLC. "Moreover, the use of chemical weapons on school children is detrimental to their health and psychological well-being."
There Is a Better Way
As the ACLU and HRW report on corporal punishment points out, there are less harmful and more productive alternatives to pain compliance:
…there are positive, nonviolent approaches to school discipline that have been proven to lead to safe environments in which children can learn. Positive behavioral supports (PBS) teach children why what they did was wrong and give them tools to improve their behavior. School districts across the US have implemented PBS, and have seen substantial declines in disciplinary referrals and improvements in school-wide safety.
Perhaps it’s time we abandon the Tasers and pepper-spray for a more humane, compassionate and evidence-based approach to school discipline.