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Hidden Force

School district police departments use tasers, pepper spray, dogs and drawn handguns to control crime on campus. But most don't keep data on the incidents, leaving parents no way to track them. Many even refuse to turn over their “use of force” guidelines, saying parting with their policies could create a security threat.

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Texas school district police departments use tasers, pepper spray — even dogs and drawn handguns — to control crime on campus.

But few keep any data on these incidents, leaving parents and administrators with no way to track them.

And many district police departments even refuse to turn over their “use of force” guidelines, saying parting with their policies could create a security threat.

So far, the attorney general’s office has ruled in their favor, though advocacy groups are suing for access.

“The information is almost impossible to get,” said Deborah Fowler, legal director with the non-profit Texas Appleseed, which has filed a lawsuit against the Spring Branch and San Antonio school districts to get them to release their use of force policies.

“We don’t want to pretend there aren’t risks to student safety,” she said. “But we need to make sure communities have a voice in how pepper spray, tasers and other force is used in their schools.”

Those uses vary widely, depending on where students attend school. Roughly a tenth of Texas school districts have police departments, but there are no statewide use of force standards.

Last spring, officials had to evacuate a Dallas high school after the pepper spray police used to break up a fight spread into the building’s ventilation system. Six students were hospitalized.

In Killeen, several high school students have filed lawsuits alleging excessive force by school district police.

And in October, 12 Manor High School students were treated for pepper spray exposure after school district police broke up a fight with it.  

 “We’ve gotten very punitive,” said Vic Feazell, the former Waco district attorney who filed the Killeen lawsuits. “Policemen in schools think they’re justified in treating children like they’re hardened criminals.”

Not all school districts are silent on their use of force numbers.

In Austin ISD, a school district that keeps some of the state’s most complete use of force records, the campus police — who also respond to citywide police calls — drew guns on juveniles 8 times in the last four years. They used pepper spray 26 times, tasers 4 times and police dogs once. They controlled juveniles with batons or other physical force 258 times. They made 8,000 arrests in the same time period.   

In Houston, officers with the school district police department drew their guns 5 times and struck suspects with batons 7 times in the 2007-08 school year. They used physical force dozens of other times.

And El Paso ISD reported using a baton once, pepper spray once, and physical force 34 times to control students between 2006 and 2009.

Austin ISD Police Chief Pat Fuller said his department maintains use of force data for training and officer evaluation, but also because it’s considered a “best practice” by the Texas Police Chiefs Association Foundation. He said his department rewrote its use of force policy manual in 2008 so that it could be distributed to the public without creating a security risk — another of the foundation’s recommendations.

“We use the data to make sure that when we do have to use force, it’s used legally and under the parameters of our policy,” said Fuller, who has led the district police department for 24 years. “We want to be able to look and see: Were there other options there?”

But many districts haven’t taken Austin’s lead.

Of the 25 school districts from which Texas Appleseed requested use of force statistics this year, 17 kept no data, including Dallas and Brownsville. And two districts — Alief and Galveston — tried to charge Appleseed $88,000 and $14,000 respectively to produce the data. Fifteen districts produced their use of force manuals.

Neither the Texas Education Agency nor the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education require Texas’ 160 school district police departments to keep statistics on when they use force against students.  

And in two separate opinions this fall, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott stood behind the school districts refusing to turn over their manuals, saying forcing them to do so could “interfere with law enforcement.”

“While we admire the mission of Texas Appleseed and appreciate their contribution to student safety in public schools,” said San Antonio ISD spokeswoman Leslie Price, the district “believes that the release of such sensitive information could possibly put our students and employees at risk.”

Students are already at risk, said 18-year-old Bianca Perez, a former Killeen High School student who was knocked unconscious when a campus police officer approached her with a baton and elbowed her in the face.

The police officer was going after Perez’ friend, a boy who had just learned that his nephew had died and didn’t want to get off the phone with his family. Perez, who was a 4’11”, 110-pound freshman at the time, got knocked to the ground during the scuffle, splitting her lips. Her family settled a lawsuit with the school district.

“When he first approached us, I thought, ‘He’s a cop, so everything’s OK,’” said Perez, who now lives in Baytown. “But when he pulled out his baton and started swinging it with no explanation – it was really scary. I don’t think a cop should ever do that unless someone’s threatening him, and we weren’t.”

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