Apr. 6, 2006 – Even before a police officer shocked a 15-year-old special-education student with a Taser in the assistant principalâ€™s office last month, youth at Witchita high schools were organizing against the controversial weapons.
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The police officers who act as security guards in Wichitaâ€™s middle and high schools began carrying Tasers â€“ gun-shaped electro-shock weapons â€“ at the beginning of this school year.
Student activists from across the district say they are angry the weapons were introduced without their input and scared because of news reports about people dying after police shocked them with Tasers.
"We didnâ€™t know about it until we started seeing them on officersâ€™ hips," 18-year-old Wichita West High School student Louis Goseland told The NewStandard.
This February, local student groups Hope Street Youth Development and Students United decided to address their concerns. In early March, students at Wichita West High School hand-delivered letters to the school safety director, their principal and the police department outlining questions and demands about Taser use in the school district. They got no response.
Just a few days later, on March 16, a police officer shocked 15-year-old Jarrett McConnell after the special-ed. student refused to go to in-school detention. Students and the media didnâ€™t find out about it for more than a week.
Student activists from across the district say they are angry the weapons were introduced without their input.
Tasers can fire darts attached to wires that penetrate clothing and skin and deliver sustained electric shocks at up to 50,000 volts, causing muscle spasms, temporarily immobilizing the target and usually triggering musculoskeletal collapse. Police can also use them at close range without the darts as stun guns. This is how the Taser used on McConnell was deployed.
"There was a lot of secrecy around it," said Goseland. "They tried to cover it up."
The two student activist groups continued their campaign. They have collected more than 250 signatures on petitions demanding the police and school district provide students with information about Taser usage. The students want to know how long Tasers have been present in the schools, what range and voltage theyâ€™re set for, under what circumstances they have already been used, and what if any safety protocols are in place. They are demanding the school district either remove Tasers completely from their schools, or develop a clear usage policy and reclassify them as "potentially lethal weapons."
"The fact that they havenâ€™t been able to answer these questions in two weeks is suspect," said 27-year-old Hope Street organizer Jake Lowen.
In late March an administrator confiscated petitions from Goseland and other students, and was reported for it on the local television news by a journalist who had come to cover the Taser issue. An editorial in the local paper, the Wichita Eagle, reprimanded the school district and the police department for their lack of disclosure.
The Wichita studentsâ€™ campaign comes amidst national controversy over the use of Tasers as a law enforcement tool.
The students held a press conference on Tasers the same afternoon McConnell was scheduled to face an expulsion hearing, but the district quietly withdrew its attempt to discharge him at that time. Goseland said that should give the public even more reason to question whether shocking McConnell was justified.
"This student was obviously not considered a grave enough threat to be kicked out for the rest of the year, but he was considered a grave enough threat to use a potentially lethal weapon on," he said.
McConnellâ€™s family retained an attorney, who said a lawsuit against the school is possible.
"I think itâ€™s a big problem that they donâ€™t have any policy on this," attorney Lawrence Williamson told TNS. "If you have something that can cause harm to someone, you need to have a policy in place to guide individuals in when and how that type of force should be used."
Susan Arensman, spokesperson for the Wichita school district, said the police "are the ones who set the policy" on Taser use, and she said they did inform community members in several meetings before officers began carrying Tasers in the schools, though she could not say which meetings.
"We donâ€™t tell [the police] how to discipline, and they donâ€™t tell us how to teach," she said.
Arensman said students were threatened with Tasers, but not actually shocked, in two other incidences in the district. In one of them, she said three middle school girls "were beating the crap out of a police officer."
"Lo and behold," she said, "when he turned the Taser on they stopped."
The Wichita Police Department did not return a call for this story and TNS could not confirm Arensmanâ€™s allegations.
The Wichita studentsâ€™ campaign comes amidst national controversy over the use of Tasers as a law enforcement tool. Currently they are not classified as a potentially lethal weapon, meaning the threshold of reason for officers to use them is low. Activists have called for the weapons to be re-classified as potentially lethal, which would force officers to prove a much more serious situation exists before using them.
According to a recently released Amnesty International report, about 39 percent of law enforcement agencies in the US use Tasers as a regular part of their arsenal. Police officers patrolling schools in other states, including Minnesota and Florida, are also armed with the weapons. In Miami-Dade County, parents of a 6-year-old who was shocked by a Taser wielding police officer have sued the police department in federal court.
Amnesty International also found that more than 150 people in the US have died after being shocked by police officers since June 2001. The official causes of death following Taser shock were usually cardiac or respiratory arrest, according to the report.
People who are under the influence of drugs or certain medications and people who have heart conditions, mental illness or other health problems are especially susceptible to death or other complications if shocked with the weapons. The latest person to die after Taser shock was 46-year-old Timothy Grant in Portland, who police shocked in March for causing a traffic disturbance. He had cocaine in his system.
Wichita students said there is no way for police officers to know whether their victim has a health condition or is taking medication that could put them at risk.
"Itâ€™s not like theyâ€™re going to ask if you have a heart condition before they Taser you," said Wichita West high school student Ashley Currant, 15.
"Being teenagers, we probably have no idea whether we have heart problems or issues that could be affected by Tasers," added Wichita West student Jackie Thompson, 18. "I donâ€™t want to die that way!"