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Use of stun guns, pepper spray in Texas schools gone wild

Cyril Josh Barker | 12/12/2013, 5:07 p.m.

Several civil rights groups in Texas are urging the state to end the use of tasers and pepper spray in schools after a tased student near Austin, Texas, was left in a coma and remains hospitalized.

At the center of the controversy is an incident that happened when a Bastrop County deputy tased 17-year-old Noe Nino de Rivera on school grounds at Cedar Creek High School on Nov. 20. De Rivera fell and hit his head, after which he was airlifted to an Austin hospital, where he remains in a medically induced coma.

According to eyewitness accounts, de Rivera was assisting in stopping the fight the deputy was trying to break up.

Seven groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Texans Care for Children and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, are asking the nine-member Texas Commission on Law Enforcement to end use of so-called “less-than-lethal weapons” in school districts statewide. They want to create and implement new standards barring the use of Tasers, stun guns and pepper spray on Texas students.

“Tragic incidents like this one demonstrate why the state should not grant police free rein to wield weapons in schools for the apparent purpose of maintaining order,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “Schools should be safe havens from this type of police use of force. I hope the commission will heed our call to end the use of Tasers and pepper spray.”

In September, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would provide $45 million in funding for additional school safety officers across the country. Texas received approximately $2 million of that funding.

Texas spends a reported $227 million annually on disciplinary measures and school security for its 11 public school districts, which serve a million students. A survey by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights found that 70 percent of students arrested or handed over to law enforcement are Black or Latino.

The state’s use of harsh discipline in schools dates back to 1995, when then-Gov. George W. Bush enforced zero tolerance polices in schools, stating, “We must adopt one policy for those who terrorize teachers or disrupt classrooms—zero tolerance.”

Parents and students in Texas report that Black students are treated more harshly and punished for minor offenses. One example is the 2008 case of 14-year-old Black student Shaquanda Cotton, who was sentenced by a judge for up to seven years in prison in the Texas Youth Commission after shoving a teacher’s aide.

Months earlier, the same judge sentenced a 14-year-old white girl who was convicted of arson to probation.

“In this post-Sandy Hook era, everyone is cognizant of the need to keep schools and students safe. However, there are far more effective ways to maintain order in schools that do not pose such a high risk to students,” said Texas Appleseed Deputy Director Deborah Fowler. “We need a statewide policy on use of force in schools that makes it clear that Tasers, stun guns and pepper spray are inappropriate to use on children. And if we are going to increase the number of school safety officers, it is imperative that officers are adequately trained.”