Tasers & Police in Schools

School Resource Officers (certified, sworn police officers) being armed with Tasers in schools is an increasingly debated school safety issue.Tasers are hand-held weapons that deliver a jolt of electricity from a device triggered from a nearby distance. The jolt stuns the target by causing an uncontrollable contraction of the muscle tissue. The target is immobilized and falls to the ground.

A handful of anecdotal incidents have occurred which suggest questionable judgment in the use of Tasers by a very few officers on juveniles. These range from Tasers being used on younger children for situations not life threatening to use on several students who asked to be voluntarily jolted by a Taser and an officer complied with the request.  In one case, a Taser’s electrical current was reportedly zapped by an officer standing behind a student sleeping in a class for the purpose of waking up the student.

Unfortunately, inappropriate uses of Tasers such as those described above generally reflect situations involving poor individual judgment. Fortunately, they do not characterize the vast majority of police officers carrying Tasers on the streets and in our schools.  While one inappropriate use is one too many, caution should be exercised to not characterize all police officers carrying Tasers in the category of those making poor judgments in anecdotal cases that capture high-profile media and public attention.

It is important for parents and the general public to also realize that many police officers are not equipped at all with Tasers.  Many, if not most, school-based police officers are also not equipped with Tasers, especially if their respective law enforcement agencies have not so equipped their entire departments.  For those school-based officers who are equipped with a Taser, it is important for school and public officials to recognize that these officers are certified police officers who are equipped with the same tools as any other police officer in their department.

 Many law enforcement officers report that Tasers are useful tools for police officers and that they add a new step in the “use of force continuum” used by police to counter threats against them and others.  They point out that the Tasers add an additional intervention tool that falls between the ultimate use of deadly force (the use of a firearm) and other less-than-lethal interventions. It has been noted by officers that the Taser may be more appropriate under some conditions than the use of chemical agents (mace, pepper spray, etc.) or the baton, and that it is less dangerous to bystanders when used in a crowd than chemical spray. A number of police departments have also credited Tasers as a contributing factor to major decreases in suspect and officer injuries, and decreases in police officer firearm shootings.

Tasers have been used to subdue violent assailants in schools.  Several incidents in the news include:

December 4, 2007: Colorado Springs, CO
Students reported a suspicious man in the high school parking lot.  A school resource officer (SRO) attempted to question him but he refused to answer, drove off fast, and hit a tree.  The officer told him to turn off the car and he moved to the glove compartment, at which time the officer used a Taser on him.  A knife was found in the car.

November 20, 2006:  Henderson, NV
The father of a high school student became combative and was escorted off campus by school police and security personnel after coming to the school nurse’s office for his daughter.  The male threatened to return with a gun.  He came back with a knife and was arrested after breaking loose, hitting two officers, and being hit by a Taser from city police who also responded.

May 6, 2005:  Middleburg, FL
A school resource officer was treated and released from the hospital for a concussion and bite wound to his hand that resulted from assaulted by an 18-year-old high school student who was trespassing, refused to leave school grounds, and resisted arrest. The suspect reportedly punched the officer in the face and knocked his radio from his hand as he tried to call for help after the officer fell.  The suspect reportedly punched and kicked him while he was on the ground.  The student left the area to go to another office and was subsequently arrested by the officer after the officer used a Taser on him.

August 11, 2005: Orlando, FL
A sheriff’s deputy twice stunned a 14-year-old female student with a Taser after the female reportedly went after her boyfriend with an 8-inch chopping knife and then turned on another deputy who directed her to stop.  The student was said to have had a note written on her school notebook reminding her to bring the knife and had reportedly told another student that she was going to kill her boyfriend with the knife.  She went after the boyfriend as soon as exited the school bus and before officials at the school for emotionally challenged students could conduct their weapons search.

August 19, 2005:  Tampa, FL
A 39-year-old mother and her 16-year-old son were charged with felony offenses for allegedly assaulting a school police officer at a high school.  Reports indicate that family had been attempting to register the 16-year-old at high school all week, although he had been suspended from school since last school year.  School officials referred the family to a high school closer to their home when the male reportedly “body checked” the officer, almost knocking him to the ground.  The officer, while arresting the student, was allegedly attacked by the mother and the son.  The suspect’s other brother, age 22, reportedly started to also attack the officer but was stopped by a security officer.  The police officer reportedly pulled a Taser and the two ceased the attack, at which time all three family members were arrested.

September 26, 2005: Charlotte, NC
A police officer reportedly used a Taser on a 17-year-old male high school student who allegedly slapped an assistant principal in the face, resisted arrest, and told the officer he was not going to jail and not going anywhere.  This incident followed a separate, unrelated incident on September 23rd where an officer used a Taser on a student at a different high school when the student allegedly assaulted an assistant principal, hit a police officer, and started swinging her belt with a large metal buckle.

October 5, 2005:  Sante Fe, NM
A police officer used a Taser on a 16-year-old who reportedly fought with the officer and resisted arrest.  The student was examined at a local hospital. The incident occurred during a riot involving up to 200 students that became involved in a food fight which led to a riot at the high school around noon. The school was locked down for about two and one-half hours as parents had to respond to pick up students.

October 27, 2005:  Huntersville, NC
Lunchtime fights resulted in seven students taken to the hospital and 15 arrested, with police officers using Tasers on two students involved in the fights. At least one of the students on which the Taser was used had reportedly pushed a police officer and refused to stop after the officer arrested her brother.

School-based police officers have noted that the Taser can potentially be helpful to officers working in schools if a threat is posed by an adult non-student intruder threatening harm to himself or others.  They also report that the Taser can be a useful tool in situations where students who pose a serious threat to themselves or others, and/or when no other intervention beyond the use of a firearm is an option.  Questions have arisen in school communities and particularly in the media, however, when the Taser has been used upon younger children, especially elementary and middle school aged youth.We have yet to find any formal research specifically on the physiological implications of the use of Tasers on the bodies of younger children which would establish definitive recommendations for or against the use on children/adolescents. It is unlikely that there will ever be such a strong body of research reflecting real-life “tests”  actually on children/adolescents since ethical implications of scientific testing and the vast majority of parents will understandably not permit such testing.  In short, there are currently far too many unanswered questions as described by physicians about the use of Tasers on young children and adolescent bodies. 

We recommend that age and developmental stages be given serious consideration in discussions between law enforcement officers and educators about using Tasers in school settings with all children, particularly younger children. We acknowledge, however, that there could be life and death situations, and situations with threats of serious harm, where a Taser may be a necessary option and a better alternative than the use of a firearm. While such situations are rare, society must acknowledge that they can and do occur.

On a day-to-day basis, however, we strongly advise that school officers take a very, very conservative approach to the use of Tasers in a school setting. The use of such a device, or even the displaying of such a device in a crowd of students, will likely draw a great deal of emotional and political responses in a school community.  School-based officers should consider all options before using a Taser on a student, including what they would have done in a similar situation in the past before they were trained and equipped with a Taser, and if that course of action is an option in lieu of using the Taser on a student.

Fortunately, most school-based police officers have long understood the seriousness of “weapons retention” issues because of their having a firearm in large groups of students.  The vast majority of school-based police officers are highly sensitive to the need for caution, consideration, and conservatism in the use of Tasers or firearms in a school setting. School-based officers are also typically better experienced, trained, and skilled in dealing with students and large groups of juveniles than the regular “street officer” who has not had a daily exposure to school settings.

We have heard some chatter in a few school districts about having school administrators carry Tasers.  We STRONGLY believe that if Tasers are used in schools, only sworn, certified, and trained police officers should be allowed to carry them, not educators, without exception.  We do NOT believe that non-law enforcement personnel should be armed with Tasers in school settings.
Although arming officers with Tasers is much more common on the streets, it is an issue drawing increased attention as more and more School Resource Officers become provided with these tools.  There appears to be much less debate and controversy over the use of Tasers on adults than on juveniles, although there has been some debate even on the use of the devices on adult suspects who have died in the broader community.  In general, it appears that Taser advocates say deaths are often due to other factors such as suspects being under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, and that the devices are safe for use on adults over a designated physical weight.  Opponents still question such use.Some questions we advise school administrators and public safety officials to expect that the community and media will ask, and issues to be prepared to consider include:

1) What policies, procedures, and/or joint memoranda of understanding are in place with the law enforcement agency and the school district regarding use of force issues followed by the police department which could surface in use of force by school-based police officers?

NOTE: This is not to suggest that school districts can, should, or even could “negotiate” a separate and/or lower standard “use of force” policy by the police department for officers who are working in a school setting.  What we suggest is that school and police leaders discuss what policies and use-of-force continuum guidelines are in existence by the police department, how they may surface in various types of scenarios in a school setting, what supportive measures can be put in place in consideration that an officer may use a Taser on a student, how schools and police will issue joint communications on the incident to the media and community, etc.

One supportive measure that could be incorporated into procedures, for example, is to take to the hospital any student upon who a Taser has been used in school prior to the student being booked/processed by police.  Another procedure could focus on protocols for the joint release of information on the incident to parents and the media by the school district and police department.

We do not believe the school district should attempt to “negotiate” a lower-standard of police use-of-force policy in reaction to high-profile, emotional, and/or political considerations in the school-community.
2) What research and data exists on the use of Tasers specifically on juvenile-aged offenders versus adult offenders?

3) What liability issues may exist for school and law enforcement officials if a Taser is used on a student?

4) What if a Taser is used on a “special needs” student or one who has a known or unknown medical condition (heart problems, for example)?

5) How will school and police officials handle the school-community relations aspect of an officer using a Taser on a student?

Being prepared for these questions and issues is a prudent step in planning.  We also recommend to school and public safety administrators that they implement a strong education and awareness effort with school staff, PTA, parents, students, and the school community on the purpose, impact, use, etc. of the Taser on the front-end, rather than waiting until after it may be used to try to educate members of the school community.  In short, there needs to be a lot of front-end homework and serious discussions, and it is unclear as to whether or not these discussions are currently taking place in many school communities.
Law enforcement agencies should already have policies in place before arming officers with Tasers.  School and police officials should discuss legal and policy implications regarding officers carrying Tasers in schools.  Police departmental policy, officer training, advance communications between school and police officials, officer judgment skills and common sense, and parent/community education will play big roles in determining the direction this issue takes in a school community.