All Over The Country, Kids Are Getting Shocked With Tasers And Sprayed With Chemicals In School

04/03/2015 12:00 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

Noe Niño de Rivera spent nearly two months in a medically induced coma after a Texas school resource officer shocked him with a Taser in November 2013. Niño de Rivera, who was 17 at the time, had been trying to break up a fight between other students, his attorney said, though the officer claimed he had been trying to diffuse the violence and the teen interfered.

The shock from the Taser knocked Niño de Rivera to the ground. He hit his head and sustained a severe brain injury. The incident changed his life and deeply affected his family members.

It was "emotionally devastating for them to see their 17-year-old son in a coma," said Adam Loewy, the family's attorney. "When this happened, the parents stayed by his bedside for three straight months, day and night -- literally from crack of dawn to 11 o'clock at night. It put them in very serious economic danger."

In Birmingham, Alabama, school police officers regularly use another type of weapon to subdue students. Since 2006, over 1,000 area students have been directly or indirectly exposed to pepper spray at school, according to a Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit arguing that the school district should be held to stricter standards regarding the use of chemical spray. At least three of the students who were pepper sprayed ended up in the hospital.

The number of police officers based in schools started ballooning in the late 1990s, and spiked after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The number of students being seriously injured by chemical spray and stun guns raises questions about the role of law enforcement officers on school grounds and how much force they should be allowed to use against children.

Since Sept. 1, 2014, at least 25 children and several faculty members around the country have sought medical attention after school-based police officers used pepper spray, Tasers and stun guns, according to a national survey of local news reports by The Huffington Post. These numbers probably don't paint the entire picture, as it's likely that some incidents go unreported.

Specific rules regarding when it is appropriate to use nonlethal weapons, as well as training practices for officers, vary greatly at police departments across the country -- often changing on a department-to-department basis, said Eugene Paoline, a criminal justice professor at the University of Central Florida. Because most school-based officers are employed by their local police forces, they are subject to these varying rules, regulations and training procedures.

"In one department, if police tell you, 'I want to talk to you about something,' and you say, 'I didn’t do anything,' you're not posing a threat but you're resisting. In some departments, they can tase you [for that]," Paoline said. "In other departments, they say, 'we’re going to reserve the Taser for when [you] start swinging [your] fists at us.'"

Some school districts have developed their own police forces, which are separate from local agencies, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. In these places, school police must comply with regulations outlined by the district.

Due in large part to these irregular policies, national data regarding the use of chemical spray and electroshock weapons in schools is hard to come by, and state-level information on the subject is inconsistent. The most recent available data on the subject out of North Carolina, for example, is a 2007-08 report from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, which says that a majority of school resource officers in the state carried pepper spray. And a 2010 review of 16 districts in Texas found that a majority allowed school police to carry "pepper spray, pepper foam, Tasers and/or Taser-like devices," according to a brief from Texas Appleseed, a social justice organization.

Taser International has outfitted more than 5,000 law enforcement agencies with Tasers to use in K-12 school districts and on college campuses, the company's vice president of strategic communications, Steve Tuttle, told HuffPost.

Stun guns and chemical spray can cause both physical and psychological damage to students.

After her son was released from the hospital in January 2014, Niño de Rivera's mother, Maria Acosta, told reporters that she had to help him get dressed and shower.

"Before, he was independent," she said at the time. "Now, he is totally dependent on me."

Niño de Rivera has since made progress in his recovery and went on to attend technical school.

"When you have this kind of brain injury, you are never the same as you were before it happened," Loewy said. "As a result, he is working very hard."

In May 2014, a grand jury decided to not indict the officer who tasered Niño de Rivera, finding that there was not enough evidence to charge him with excessive use of force. Niño de Rivera's family filed a federal lawsuit, but in November officials from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division also found that there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges. The family sued Bastrop County, where the school is located, and received $775,000 as part of the settlement, although the county did not admit any wrongdoing.

Being at the receiving end of a stun gun's electrical shock can cause irregular heart rhythm or cardiac arrest, according to a 2012 study. Pepper spray can cause such health effects as trouble breathing, asthma attacks and temporary vision loss, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Psychologically, "different kids respond to different situations in different ways," David Osher, a vice president and fellow at the American Institutes for Research who leads research projects on school safety, said. Some kids may not experience trauma after seeing or hearing about someone in their school being hit with a stun gun, he noted, but "someone who sees a lot of violence in the community or experiences violence at home, or is the victim of teasing, [is] more likely to be set off by it."

Osher said he thinks Tasers should be used if the only other way to subdue a student would be to shoot them, and that some school resource officers misuse the weapons.

But some proponents of placing police officers in schools argue that these weapons are needed to maintain order. In the case of Birmingham City Schools, an attorney defending school police has said that banning pepper spray would be hazardous.

"Removing chemical spray from the tools available to SROs is contrary to the public interest and poses a grave threat to the safety of officers, teachers, and students," said a statement submitted to the case's judge in January. The statement went on to say that using chemical sprays "is safe and, generally, a considerably more reasonable and 'less intrusive' alternative in certain situations ... than requiring SROs to use their hands or a higher level of force on students."

In Texas juvenile justice facilities, guards are not permitted to use Tasers and pepper spray is only allowed in certain instances -- yet police can still use such weapons in schools. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Texas Appleseed are working to promote legislation that would align public school rules with those of juvenile justice centers.

“Eventually, we’ll see a student who is killed by a Taser or pepper spray use in public school,” Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, said.

Niño de Rivera is now "doing well and functioning," said Loewy, the teen's attorney. "[But] he went through hell for no justifiable reason."

Do you know of an incident where a student was hit with a stun gun or sprayed with chemicals at school? If so, e-mail Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com with your story.

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