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A call for an investigation into reported use of pepper spray by police in school brawl

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Paul Jablow

In two separate incidents this year, pepper spray has been used by police on students inside a Philadelphia school.

This week’s news report about pepper spray used during an October fight at Benjamin Franklin High School has prompted the advocacy group Parents United for Public Education to call for the School Reform Commission and the Philadelphia School District to investigate the use of pepper spray on students by police officers.

"I’m concerned about collateral damage to kids not involved in the melee," said parent Maurice Jones, speaking for Parents United. "In a closed space, it can affect people not part of the situation. … We’re trying to figure out what the protocol is."

"The use of any chemical agent inside a building … is of grave concern for all of us as parents," the group said in an emailed statement about the incident. It "does not de-escalate a situation. Instead it creates panic and adds to greater chaos and disruption. In a District where a number of students suffer from serious asthma and other respiratory ailments, and where medical personnel are scarce or non-existent, the use of chemical agents within a building poses a massive health and safety risk to all who are involved."

The group wants the School District to clarify its policies on such use of chemical agents by the District and outside entities such as the city police.

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the incident on Oct. 29 at Franklin occurred after the school cafeteria was locked down and searched by school police and city police because of a tip that a student had a weapon in the cafeteria. A fight broke out outside the cafeteria during the search, and a city police officer used pepper spray on one or more students, Gallard said. There were 12 arrests, and several students were recommended for expulsion. No weapon was found.

In an earlier case, Gallard said, pepper spray was used by a school police officer on a student in violation of District policy.

School police officers are not issued pepper spray, tear gas, or weapons and are forbidden to use them inside the school, Gallard said; the officer apparently obtained the pepper spray privately. But Gallard said that those rules do not apply to city officers called in.

Gallard said he was unable to provide further details on the incident involving school police.

City police declined to respond to inquiries about the incident at Franklin or about their policies for use of pepper spray.

Pepper spray, more formally called OC for Oleoresin Capsicum, functions as an inflammatory agent, irritating eyes and bronchial tubes, and is particularly irritating for people with asthma or allergies. Although some researchers have termed the spray nontoxic, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California has said it was implicated in several deaths there and called for its banning. Researchers at the University of North Carolina and Duke University have also raised the question of toxicity of propellants that are sometimes used in conjunction with the spray.

Parents United called on the District to document any use of pepper spray against students in the last three years and "reach a public agreement" with the Philadelphia Police Department on use of chemical agents by their officers inside schools.

Franklin has had an influx of new students this year from Vaux and University City High Schools after they were closed by the District. But Gallard said that according to principal Gregory Hailey, "the incident did not have a connection to any type of rivalry between groups of students."

Dale Mezzacappa contributed reporting to this post.

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