Noting a string of incidents where school police officers used excessive force — body-slamming students, tasing them and tackling them in response to everyday discipline issues — a team of education and civil rights groups has asked Governor Greg Abbott to create a new task force on school safety.
In a letter sent Tuesday, the groups wrote that they hoped the task force could recommend ideas for the 2017 Legislature “that will not compromise school safety, but will ensure that the kind of inappropriate uses of force against our students that we continue to see statewide no longer occur.”
“No parent sends their child to school thinking that a grown man will body slam her to the ground,” Matt Simpson, senior policy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said in a statement to media. “In fact, if a father body-slammed his daughter, it would be considered child abuse.”
Simpson’s comment references a March incident, caught on cell phone video, in which former San Antonio ISD police officer Joshua Kehm threw a 12-year-old girl to the ground after an argument between girls at Rhodes Middle School. The school district fired Kehm after the video spread, but he is appealing the decision. The groups’ letter also notes events in Abilene ISD, mentioned in a recent lawsuit first reported by the Observer, in which a former city police officer was allowed to keep working at the Jefferson Center disciplinary campus even after a series of use-of-force complaints from parents.
The letter to Abbott also raises particular concerns about officers’ use of pepper spray, Tasers and other weapons against students. The groups cite a 2013 case from Bastrop, in which 17-year-old Noe Niño de Rivera was tased by an officer after trying to break up a fight. The boy spent 52 days in a coma and, according to the letter, “suffered from a traumatic brain injury as a result of that interaction — his life is permanently changed.”
The letter calls on Abbott to end Texas’ participation in the U.S. Department of Defense 1033 program, which provides local police — including school police departments — with military weapons.
“Students and parents shouldn’t have to wait for another lawsuit or troubling video to surface before we take action,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed. Nine groups joined in the letter, including Texans Care for Children, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas.
Texas lawmakers also took up the subject of school policing in the 2015 session, creating a new class in school policing for all officers in large school districts. But, as the groups note in the letter to Abbott, half of Texas’ 5 million school children attend districts smaller than the law’s 30,000-student minimum.
The groups said that “training is not enough,” noting that San Antonio ISD already required its officers to complete 40 hours of “Children’s Crisis Intervention Training,” double the training the Legislature created last year.
In addition to that course, the San Antonio officer who threw the 12-year-old student to the ground had just completed about half of the new state training — a course that includes alternatives to force and de-escalation techniques.
And records the Observer recently obtained through a public information request show that Bond, the Abilene officer, had completed 68 hours of special school police training before the use-of-force incidents mentioned in the lawsuit against him.
“Training is critical,” the groups urged Abbott, “but more needs to be done.”