Why Cops Broke Up a School Brawl with Chemical Spray

The aftermath of a nasty scene at a Detroit public high school raises fresh doubts about whether cops should be disciplining students.

by Allie Gross
Mar 17 2016, 6:08pm

Central Collegiate High School in Detroit. Photo by the author

Detroit school cops used a chemical spray to stop fighting this week in an incident that saw over a dozen students arrested and at least one teen taken away on a stretcher.

While Central Collegiate High School Principal David Oclander tells VICE he's still investigating exactly what happened on Tuesday afternoon, he concedes that a chemical agent—or "crowd control devices," as he referred to them a day earlier in a statement to the Detroit Free Press—was used on students.

The spat took place following a bomb threat and false fire alarm at around 1:30 PM. When students were let back into the school post-evacuation, multiple physical skirmishes erupted on the second floor and third floor. According to a spokesperson from the Education Achievement Authority (EAA)—the state-run district for 15 of the city's lowest-performing schools, Central among them—once the fighting was over, 16 students were detained by Detroit Public School Police (DPSP). Of the 16, 12 were juveniles and ticketed for disorderly conduct and released to their parents; the other four were adults (17 or older) and charged with disorderly conduct. (Detroit city police were also reportedly on scene but did not seem to play a major role.)

"I think there is a very good debate that has to be had: Should we have police officers? Should we have metal detectors?" says Principal Oclander, who spent 23 years in the military prior to becoming an educator. "One side would say, 'Yes, it leads to safety,' while another would say, 'No, it can just lead to escalations.' I think that's a debate that ought to be had."

The principal's doubts speak to the changing dialogue on police in America's schools after a series of high-profile incidents of violence. Research has shown that students who get suspended or expelled are more likely to be ensnared in the criminal justice system—also known as the "school-to-prison-pipeline." In his case, the pipeline appears especially narrow, with at least some offending students immediately put on track from school to incarceration.

"We talk about the school to prison pipeline, but sometimes, it feels like it may be more valuable to talk about the "juvi-to-prison pipeline" or the "prison-to-prison" pipeline," says Wayne State University School of Education Associate Professor Thomas Pedroni, who's currently collaborating with ACLU-Michigan to measure the impacts of police on urban and suburban districts. "I mean, if you think about it, students come into school, and it's basically like the control room in a prison. You get securitized as you come in, maybe your parents have their IDs scanned so that makes parents less likely to want to come if they have warrants or something like that. But in terms of the students, it creates an environment much more parallel to a prison environment."

When I visited the school Wednesday, that environment was on full display. Five school police cars circled around the building, and an electric blue bus was waiting out front, ready to wheel off any students who started a follow-up fight.

By 4 PM, students had exited the school without drama and the district police took off. No one was detained.

Despite its shock value, the use of chemical agents in the K-12 arena is nothing new. In October, US District Judge Abdul Kallon ruled that the Birmingham Police Department violated the constitutional rights of students in the Birmingham school district when they used pepper spray to enforce school discipline. The class-action case was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2010, and it featured eight plaintiffs who had experiences being sprayed with the chemical spray Freeze +P. When I reported on the case for Mother Jones last year, Ebony Howard, a lawyer with the SPLC, estimated that in the last decade, there have been at least 110 pepper-spray incidents. However, she added the impact of the brutal tactic reach far deeper than the number of kids hit.

"When you use a tactic like chemical sprays in schools, what you do is you teach a kid who has been sprayed, a kid who may have been accidentally sprayed, a kid who saw another kid get sprayed, as well as a kid who just knows about the use of the chemical—all of those kids learn to distrust law enforcement officers," Howard told me. "They learn that they will not be treated fairly."

When I ask if he's fearful such distrust might emerge at his school in the days ahead, Oclander says it's possible given some kids may not understand that cops used spray to break up a fight that could have been even more dangerous than the spray. "The kids' perception is their reality," the principal says.

Oclander adds that he tried to mitigate that response by bringing in mental health workers on Wednesday to help students process the violence. Unlike the Detroit incident, which officials describe as a multi-person brawl, many of the Birmingham cases in the class-action suit involved police spraying only one or two students. A Detroit school source who requested anonymity to speak candidly emphasizes the difference in the scale of the conflicts, and wonders what authorities are supposed to do when dozens of students start fighting.

"It's like a fire without putting water on it. How do you stop it?" the source says. "There is only so much violence you can do to kids, but you also need to step in because if not they will destroy each other."

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