Governor Perry Asked to Issue a Moratorium on Taser and Pepper Spray Use in Schools

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
February 27, 2014

CONTACT:
Tom Hargis, ACLU of Texas
832.291.4776
media@aclutx.org

Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed
512.757.1458
dfowler@texasappleseed.net

AUSTIN – A coalition of advocacy organizations concerned with student safety is asking Governor Rick Perry to declare a moratorium on the use of Tasers and pepper spray on Texas students. The request follows a recent Tasing incident by a school police officer that left a Cedar Creek High School student in a coma for more than 50 days with traumatic brain injury.

In a letter sent yesterday to the Office of the Governor, the seven organizations called on Governor Perry to “take action to ensure that this harm does not occur to even one more child in a Texas school.”

The coalition has urged the governor to require the state’s School Safety Task Force, which was created in the last legislative session, to make recommendations regarding common sense restrictions around the use of Tasers and pepper spray on Texas public school students. It seeks a moratorium on their use until those recommendations are finalized.

“The risks associated with Taser and pepper spray use on children are well documented,” said Lauren Rose, juvenile justice policy associate for Texans Care for Children, one of the groups signing the letter. “Beyond the health risks, the heavy-handed use of force on young people is counterproductive and traumatic. These tactics create school climates characterized by fear and intimidation rather than learning and positive relationships with adults. It is time for the Governor to step in and ensure Texas schools are kept safe.”

The seven organizations previously had called on two state agencies – the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement and the Texas Education Agency – to put a halt to this type of force in the state’s schools. Both agencies have since responded that they lack the authority to take action.

The tasing last November of Cedar Creek High School student Noe Niño de Rivera, 17, put a tragic face on the growing problem of use-of-force practices in schools. The Tasing resulted in traumatic brain injury when Niño de Rivera fell and hit his head, leaving the teenager significantly disabled. Videotape of the incident shows a member of the Bastrop County Sherriff’s department using a Taser on Niño de Rivera in the aftermath of a hallway fight between two girls, even though he was not involved in the fight and in fact helped to break it up before the police arrived.

The letter to Governor Perry notes that bills were filed in each of the last three legislative sessions to rein in the use of Tasers and pepper spray on school children. Those bills did not pass. “If one of those bills had passed, Noe Niño de Rivera would not be in a rehabilitation facility today,” said Jennifer Carreon, policy researcher at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

The unsuccessful legislation included a bill requiring school police officers to receive training in alternative discipline approaches, making them less likely to rely on force. Another bill would have required simple data collection of such incidences, providing parents and communities with a reliable source for tracking the use of these weapons in schools.

While Niño De Rivera’s injuries are the most severe documented to date, the letter notes that Cedar Creek was not an isolated incident. Multiple media reports reveal numerous cases of either Tasers or pepper spray being used on Texas students as well as examples of suits filed by parents alleging excessive use of force by school police on their children.

“Recent research has found that the overwhelming majority of crimes committed by Texas students are low-level misdemeanors that do not warrant such extreme use of force,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed. In fact, news reports include examples of pepper spray being used to break up cafeteria food fights or to force a student to give up her cell phone. What’s more, the use of these weapons on students in various states of mental health crisis greatly increases the risk of additional trauma.

“There are appropriate methods of intervening when a young person is experiencing a mental health crisis, and using a Taser is not one of them,” said Greg Hansch, policy coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Texas.

It is noteworthy that Tasers are not permitted for use in county or state juvenile facilities and use of pepper spray is tightly regulated. Even Residential Treatment Centers in Texas, which house children with serious behavioral problems including those who have been found delinquent by the courts, are prohibited from using Tasers or pepper spray for disciplinary or emergency behavioral interventions.

Co-signees on the letter to Governor Perry include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas, Disability Rights Texas, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Texans Care for Children, Texas Appleseed, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC). View the letter to Governor Perry. Visit the Justice for Noe Facebook page.

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Disability Rights Texas (previously named Advocacy, Inc.) is the federally designated legal protection and advocacy agency (P&A) for people with disabilities in Texas. Our mission is to help people with disabilities understand and exercise their rights under the law, ensuring their full and equal participation in society.