Task Force member: Tasers used too often in schools

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
A citizen member of the Rowan County Task Force for Child Abuse Prevention said at its annual meeting Monday that resource officers in the Rowan-Salisbury School System are using Tasers on students in situations that don’t warrant them.
“I think that has got to be addressed,” said Mary Beth Smith.
Teachers concerned about the use of Tasers on students are afraid to say anything for fear of losing their jobs, she said, and parents are afraid to say anything because their children are students in the schools. Smith said one teacher told her about a student being subdued with a Taser two or three times.
Tasers aren’t just being used in the most serious situations, she said, such as a student trying to fight with a resource officer or a student carrying a weapon. Smith said resource officers are also using them to break up fights between students.
“That does not warrant the use of Tasers,” she said.
Smith said she brought up her concerns three years ago after Spencer Police Chief Robert Bennett was quoted in a Salisbury Post article as saying he had used a Taser on his teenage daughter as part of a demonstration, but the task force took no action.
At Monday’s meeting, Smith distributed copies of an article about a 15-year-old boy dying after police in Bay City, Mich., used a Taser on him.
Task Force Chairman Arnold Chamberlain appointed Smith to head up a committee to look into the use of Tasers in the schools. He asked three other members to serve on the committee ó Capt. Kevin Auten of the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm and Tom Brewer, the Rowan County Department of Social Services’ program administrator for children’s services.
Chamberlain suggested Tim Smith, director of student services for the Rowan-Salisbury School System, also serve on the committee.
Carl Ford, who succeeded Chamberlain as chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners and serves as vice chairman of the Board of Social Services, said the committee might also want to include representatives from town police departments which have resource officers in the schools.
Smith said the use of Tasers is not “a rare occasion.”
“I think we have to get a handle on this,” she said. “Let’s not wait until, God forbid, a child in a hallway brawl dies” from the use of a Taser.
Jeanne J. Preisler, executive director of Family Crisis Council, asked if the issue of Tasers in the schools would fall under the jurisdiction of the Law Enforcement Protocol Committee, which is a subcommittee of the task force.
“I think it’s greater than that,” Smith responded.
District Attorney Bill Kenerly said he shared Smith’s concerns on Tasers being used too often, even though he said they are sometimes appropriate ó even in schools.
Auten said a good place for the committee to start would be requiring all school resource officers to follow the same guidelines for using Tasers. As it is, he said, officers from different departments go by different guidelines.
He brought up the recent announcement that Rowan-Salisbury school board members may cut funding for resource officers for the middle schools from next year’s budget.
Chamberlain encouraged committee members to not let their Taser discussions become a political issue over the projected lack of funding for middle school resource officers.
Ford said the county may be able to obtain federal money to pay for those officers.
Wilhelm said the Salisbury Police Department has eight Tasers, and they are only accessible to supervisors. None are used in the schools, he said.
Neither are the Rowan Sheriff’s Office Tasers, Auten said.
Dr. Nilous Avery, task force member and chairman of the Rowan County Board of Social Services, asked if resource officers used mace in the schools, saying that could be dangerous to students with asthma.
Wilhelm responded, “I will tell you we do use pepper spray in schools.”
Auten said it’s sometimes needed to control fights, especially involving some of the larger students.
Avery, who said he had to break up some fights when he was an educator, said the task force wouldn’t want to limit resource officers’ ability to do their jobs.
Ford said one resource officer had to undergo surgery after being attacked by a student.
“He got hurt trying not to hurt the child,” he said. “That’s important, and he did the right thing.”
Task force member Carol Dunlap of Prevent Child Abuse Rowan asked if there were any statistics on the number of times Tasers are used in the schools.
Auten said the Sheriff’s Office keeps a record of every time a Taser is used.
Elizabeth Smith, the mother of Mary Beth Smith and the other citizen member of the task force, said Tasers are also being used on elderly residents at nursing homes in the county. “That is unconscionable,” she said. “Talk about elderly abuse.”
She said later in the meeting that this was not being done by officers who work for the Rowan Sheriff’s Office or the Salisbury or Spencer police departments.
The Rowan County Task Force for Child Abuse Prevention ó created in 1998 following the deaths of four children whose caregivers had been investigated by the Department of Social Services for abuse or neglect ó will make its annual report to Rowan County commissioners at their April 6 meeting.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.