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Stun Guns in Schools May Get OK

Ohanian Comment: When the principal perceives students in her building as criminals, and the superintendent talks of children as a new breed, there are serious problems that no stun gun will solve. I'm sure these people didn't go into education talking/thinking this way. So what happened?

Clearly, a transformation is needed. And the seeds for this transformation are nearby. If school officials and police want to improve the climate at their schools, they need to listen to students they've pushed out. For starters, they could engage students at the World of Opportunity in conversation. Solutions will come from dialogue, not from stun guns.

Birmingham Mayor Bernard Kincaid said Friday he is leaning toward lifting the moratorium on police use of stun guns in schools.

Kincaid shifted gears after meeting with school Superintendent Wayman B. Shiver Jr., Police Chief Annetta Nunn and other city and school officials to debate whether Taser guns are safe, and whether they're needed in the city's schools.

Those at the meeting weighed in with comments for and against stun guns. Arguments at times became emotional. "It was very, very heartfelt, great dialogue," Kincaid said after the meeting.

He said he would take next week to consider allowing stun guns in schools.

"I have not made a decision, although it's fairly obvious that I'm leaning toward lifting it," Kincaid said. "We are trying to arrive at what the policy is going to be for the City of Birmingham."

Nunn argued that stun guns save lives. She said that in the 136 times Tasers have been used in Birmingham communities, there have been no deaths. "In 20 of those occasions, deadly force would have been justified, so those lives were saved," Nunn said.

Wenonah High School Principal Regina Carr-Hunter sounded desperate in describing the situation at her school. "It's very, very serious. We're talking about criminals. Not just thugs, criminals," she said.

Barrett Dewitt, the school resource officer stationed at Wenonah, agreed. "Limiting what the officers can carry is not a good idea. We're already limited. We're outgunned here," he said in an interview at the school.

Some officers afraid:

When a fight breaks out at a school, it becomes nearly impossible to break it up with a ring of 50 to 100 students around it. "You cannot get to a fight without having to shove or push other kids out of the way. It's like an event," Dewitt said.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Dewitt said he isn't afraid of any students, even though some are bigger than he is. But Shiver said he has talked with others who aren't so fearless.

"We have a new breed of children, a small number, who are not afraid of anything, including your police force," Shiver said at the meeting. "Even the male police officers are afraid of these fights."

Shiver, who has shied away from flat-out endorsing stun guns, seemed strongly in favor of the devices Friday.

"Officers are at risk," he said. "I've had police officers tell me, `I'm never working at a Birmingham city school again,' primarily because they've been injured."

Speaking of school police officers, he said, "Whatever the policy is, I'll take them with what they bring."

The question of safety:

Nunn said the buzz about Tasers isn't unusual. Any time a new weapon is added to the arsenal of school police, there's bound to be some controversy. It happened when police were first allowed to carry pepper spray, she said.

With concerns about health risks prompting the moratorium earlier this month, Kincaid invited to the meeting a UAB physician who outlined the effects of a Taser zap.

Research is inconclusive, said Marlon Priest, UAB professor of emergency medicine. But certain factors - drug use, struggling, sweatiness at the time of a jolt - have been cited in cases where the electrical stun has been fatal. No cause-and-effect has been established, however, Priest said.

USA Today reported Friday that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has rejected the use of stun guns for about 20,000 agents and officers, largely due to safety concerns.

Shelly Millender, a resident opposed to stun guns in schools, said school police have a job to do. "Their job is not to kill people. Their job is to police," he said.

At Wenonah High on Friday afternoon, minutes before the dismissal bell rang, police officer Dewitt made his way toward a cluster of boys leaning against a fence. One, wearing a hooded black sweatshirt and gold chains, straddled a small bike as he talked to the students.

"See, now right here I've got a trespasser," Dewitt said. "Do I know what he's carrying? No, I don't."

E-mail: gdouban@bhamnews.com

— Gigi Douban
Birmingham News




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