BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA – A federal judge has granted class action status to a lawsuit challenging the Birmingham Police Department’s use of pepper spray in schools.
U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon granted a request by attorneys for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which had filed the lawsuit in 2010 with eight named students who were hit by pepper spray, to certify a class consisting of all current and future high school students of Birmingham City Schools for the lawsuit.
The questions being answered on behalf of that entire group is whether the police department’s policy in the use of pepper spray in schools and the training provided to the school resource officers are “constitutionally defective,” according to the judge’s order.
Attorneys for the police department did not respond to email requests for comment.
Kallon, who issued the order Friday, has previously dismissed the Birmingham Board of Education and superintendent from the lawsuit. He has not ruled on requests by an assistant principal and the police officers to dismiss all remaining claims against them as well.
John Carroll, dean of the Cumberland School of Law, said that granting a request for class action status, does not mean a judge won’t later rule in favor of the defendants in a case. But what ever ruling the judge makes in the case would apply to the entire class, he said.
Having the lawsuit become a class action case was good news to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“This definitely elevates things to a different level,” said Ebony Howard, attorney with the center. “This is no longer eight kids challenging the (pepper spray) policy … This order is saying that every high school student in Birmingham has standing,” she said.
“We definitely feel that it is a positive sign,” Howard said.
The center filed the lawsuit in late 2010 claiming police officers working at the schools have used pepper spray for what are really just behavioral problems that don’t pose a threat to the officers. The center has stated in court documents that since 2006, more than 100 school children in Birmingham have been pepper sprayed, although more recently center officials put that number at 200.
The lawsuit seeks a policy on pepper spray use in schools and specialized training for police who service as school resource officers.
The police department has a general policy for its officers on use of chemical spray,
but has no specific policy regarding use of the spray in schools, according to court documents.