Civil rights groups want Taser ban in Texas schools

The ACLU and six other civil rights groups asked the state's police commission to ban Tasers and pepper spray in Texas schools

By James Pinkerton
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — The ACLU and six other civil rights groups Wednesday asked the state's police commission to ban Tasers and pepper spray in Texas schools, following a brain injury to a Bastrop high school student who fell after he was shocked and remains in a coma.

Instead, the group suggests police officers use de-escalation techniques and crisis intervention tactics, such as separating students in a fight, talking with them and waiting for the situation to calm.

"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 use of Tasers and pepper spray."

In Austin, a spokeswoman for Texas Commission on Law Enforcement said agency leaders are reviewing the request and did not provide a comment by press time.

On Nov. 20, a Bastrop County sheriff's deputy working at the Cedar Creek High School used a Taser on Noe Nino de Rivera, a 17-year-old student who witnessses said was breaking up a fight between female students and was obeying officer's commands, his attorney said. De Rivera went limp and fell to the floor, hitting his head. He was taken by helicopter ambulance to an Austin hospital, where he remains in a medically-induced coma, said family attorney Adam Loewy.

"The doctors believe he will make it, but he will have a very serious, permanent brain injury, and we won't know the extent of that until he wakes up," said Loewy.

Sheriff: No comment
Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering had no comment on the request, said a department spokeswoman. The department has said the student was acting aggressively and intervened in the fight.

The request to bar nonlethal weapons was made by the ACLU, the Texas Appleseed group, along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Disability Rights Texas, Texans Care for Children, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Texas.

The use of Tasers and pepper spray was defended by Chief C.A. "Chuck" Brawner, of the Spring Branch Independent School District police force, who said nonlethal weapons are necessary so officers don't have to use firearms or nightsticks on unarmed students. His officers do not use Tasers but carry pepper spray and have used the caustic agent twice on students since 1987, Brawner confirmed.

"When you take away the pepper spray and you take away the Taser, what do you have left?" Brawner said. "What if there are several people and you have one officer and they can't control them and they could get away and cause other problems, how do you stop them? When you start taking away other options other than a firearm or a nightstick, what else are you going to use?"

HISD uses foam
Houston ISD's 206-member police force do not use Tasers, but officers carry a pepper foam that is less likely to affect bystanders than a spray, according to information from the district. Over the past two years, the police department has recorded nine uses of pepper foam, typically to break up large fights, according to data provided by the district.

Brawner acknowledged that Tasers and pepper spray have caused deaths when they have been used on the streets by law enforcement.

"But what's the alternative — just let them go and let them wreak havoc in a school," he said. "You don't want to use deadly force like a pistol in a situation like that unless they've got a gun."

Local police are sometimes called to help with crimes on police campus, and they follow their own guidelines for using Tasers and pepper spray.

'Use common sense'
Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs with the Harris County Sheriff's Office, said deputies are prohibited from using Tasers on pregnant women, people already under restraint, the elderly and children under the age of 13.

When deputies are called to a school campus, they "would have to use common sense in any situation when there are crowds of people nearby, or when it's more advisable to handle the situation differently," he said.

Loewy, the attorney for de Rivera, stopped short of supporting a ban on Tasers on campus.

"There needs to be a balance struck between preserving the safety of students and teachers, and making sure students do not get hurt by law enforcement officers in the school," Loewy said. "The major way to do that is to improve training, not necessarily an outright ban."

Copyright 2013 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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