Last week, a group of civil rights organizations including the ACLU and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition called on Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams to ban the use of Tasers and pepper spray on schoolchildren, citing the recent severe injury of a Cedar Creek High teen as an example of the devices’ potential to inflict serious damage.
Within the Texas juvenile justice system, guards are banned from using Tasers on young offenders. But in public schools, “resource officers” are allowed to use the devices—along with pepper spray—at the discretion of local school boards.
“Texas families deserve to send their children to school without fear, knowing they can trust their schools to be safe havens,” the letter reads. “Emitting a shock of up to 50,000 volts, Tasers are designed to restrain adults. They simply should not be used on children.”
Williams’ office responded Thursday that it doesn’t have the “statutory authorization” to impose a ban on the weapons, noting that the authority lies with local school districts and charter school boards.
“That is a conversation that has to take place among local elected officials,” he said in a statement.
Last year the same coalition of civil rights groups called on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to enact a ban on the “non-lethal” devices, and were met with a similar response. Commission officials, however, vowed to work with the criminal justice groups in providing specialized curriculum for school police officers. TCLOSE only requires school security to meet the “minimum standards” of peace officers as established by the Texas Education Code—generalized training that is not specific to dealing with minors.
John Helenberg, director of operations at the law enforcement commission, said the agency is forming an independent committee of “experts across the state from various law enforcement agencies,” to take a closer look at how peace officers should use force in schools. That review will begin in March, Helenberg said.
Texas Appleseed and the ACLU examined the policies of 18 school districts in the state which volunteered to supply data; the use of pepper spray was prevalent throughout. The 2011 ACLU study also revealed the use of other weapons among the school districts: Killeen ISD listed police batons as one option; El Paso ISD reported using police dogs. Two Houston school districts recently began using “pepper guns,” which are more accurate than pepper spray.
The tactics used to restrain students are also determined independently by each school district and vary widely. Austin ISD officers use “soft empty-hand control” techniques when a student doesn’t respond to two verbal warnings, whereas Tyler ISD officers report using pepper spray after the student’s third failure to comply.
In 2009, several Hillcrest High students in Dallas were given medical treatment for exposure after an officer used pepper spray to break up a fight. Despite these injuries, information on force used against students and the types of implements officers wield is difficult to obtain because there are no legislative mandates requiring schools to report that data to the state. A Taser International spokesman told the Los Angeles Times in a 2009 article that “‘well over 4,000” law enforcement agencies nationwide use their product in schools.