October 29, 2009
|Charged Discussion over Tasers in Schools|
The Guilford County Board of Education, at its meeting on Thursday, Oct. 22, heard from a series of speakers opposed to the use of Tasers in the schools. The protests came as the school board reviewed its state mandated safe schools plan, which will define how schools will handle disciplinary problems from now until 2012.
The speakers at the meeting highlighted the problem the school board faces in drafting policies on how teachers, principals and law enforcement officers who serve in the schools, called school resource officers (SRO), should respond to incidents. The school board is constantly deluged with complaints about disciplinary problems in the schools, but is also faulted for using any of the tools at its disposal – suspension, criminal charges and, in the case of SROs, force, to respond to those problems.
Most of the speakers spoke against the presence of Tasers in the schools, but one complained about the potential for violent incidents on county school buses.
Linda Mozell of Greensboro, a member of the School Climate Task Force the school board created last year to address violence and other discipline problems in the schools, said that the carrying of Tasers by officers would mix badly with language in the plan that requires officers to be called to elementary schools when a student assaults someone or communicates a threat.
Mozell said, "To my mind, that meant that we now have elementary children who are candidates to be Tased."
Mozell said the school board may not, because of its contracts with law enforcement agencies, be able to control whether or not officers carry Tasers. But she said that it can require its principals and assistant principals to respond to disciplinary cases in such a way as to avoid escalating them to criminal cases.
"Corporal punishment was taken out of the school system, and it was replaced by Tasers?" she asked. "Does that seem right to you?"
The plan requires that elementary students under 13 who communicate threats or physically assault and injure a teacher or other individual on school property or at a school activity receive up to 10 days out-of-school suspension, and that middle school students who do the same get up to 365 days of suspension and be sent to a SCALE school for suspended students. The plan requires the school to call law enforcement in either case.
However, Anthony Scales, the school system's program director for school safety, said that state law requires school systems to have clear standards of behavior and consequences for violations, including assaults by students under 13. "Those incidents have to be reported to law enforcement," he said.
Joe Stafford of Greensboro, who has spoken against Tasers in the schools for months at school board meetings, called the use of Tasers in the schools a shame and a disgrace, to huge applause from the audience, most of whom had come to support speakers on that issue.
Stafford, too, compared Taser use in the schools to corporal punishment, which the school system doesn't allow, although state law does. He said that numerous people have died from Tasing nationwide and the school board shouldn't wait until that happens here.
"They don't do it in mental hospitals," he said. "They don't do it in federal prisons. This Tasing will go out. I hope it will go out in my lifetime, but I'm afraid someone is going to die."
At the other end of the spectrum, Howard Johnson of Greensboro complained about an incident in which a female student was hit on a school bus by a male student who had been involved in 21 previous incidents. He said the male student was given a short suspension – a Band-aid, in his words. He called on the school board to seek grant money to put observers on school buses.
The school system's record on the use of Tasers in the schools so far is mixed. In a Sept. 16 incident at Ragsdale High School, a deputy used a Taser on a 15-year-old female student after she allegedly threatened faculty members and assaulted the deputy. That incident drew widespread condemnation from the public and from some school board members.
But on Sept. 21, a deputy was injured because he didn't use his Taser at Northeast High School. According to the Sheriff's Department, a 14-year-old male student assaulted another student in class and then assaulted the Northeast SRO who responded to the disturbance. The Sheriff's Department said the student threw the deputy into a wall of lockers, injuring him badly enough to require surgery.
The North Carolina Taser Safety Project, whose members include the ACLU, the NAACP and Legal Aid of North Carolina, recently issued a report calling for a statewide standard on when and how Tasers can be used. The report came out before the Guilford County school Tasings, but criticized the Greensboro Police Department for an incident in which a protester was Tased for refusing to move from an intersection.
The group wrote, "It is the position of the Project that the use of a Taser on an individual who is doing no more than offering passive resistance to an officer is inappropriate and constitutes an excessive use of force." The report listed similar incidents in schools in Franklin County and Apex, North Carolina, in which the group said that students had been Tased for not complying with teachers or for profanity.
At the school board meeting, school board member Amos Quick used his time during the reports from school board members to highlight an Oct. 16 South Carolina incident in which police said an SRO fatally shot a student who had stabbed him.
"I pray for the officer," Quick said. "I pray for the student, and I pray for where we're headed in this country."
The school board also heard a report from Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Leo Bobadilla on Oak Ridge Elementary School, which has been closed since August because of health problems reported by students and teachers. The symptoms have been variously attributed to limited ventilation by the Guilford County Department of Public Health and to mold by some parents.
Bobadilla said the school system has done most of the remediation recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which inspected Oak Ridge in July and has been monitoring it ever since. Acting on the NIOSH recommendations, the school system has removed all the school's carpeting and replaced it with vinyl tile, replaced ceiling tiles, cleaned the crawlspace under the school and installed a vapor barrier in the crawlspace to prevent any mold that forms there from circulating in the school. Bobadilla said the two remaining pieces of work to be done are recommissioning the school's air-conditioning system and reviewing the site's drainage.
Bobadilla said the school system received an email from NIOSH last week indicating that the agency does not expect to recommend any more work on the school. The agency has said that it will issue its final report on the school by the end of the year, but does not plan to recommend whether or not it should be opened.
That leaves the school board with the final decision on whether or not to return students to Oak Ridge from the temporary quarters they now occupy in three other schools. The school board hasn't yet made that decision.
School board Chairman Alan Duncan said the school system is working with the Turner Group, the environmental remediation firm it hired at the recommendation of NIOSH, to finish up the recommended work. He said, once that is done, the school board will make the decision on reopening the school.
"I think we're waiting for the Turner recommendations," Duncan said. "But I think that's the direction we're striving toward, and to move there as quickly as we can."