Remedying Police Brutality in America's Public Schools through Private Structural Reform under 42 U.S.C. § 1983

By Billings, Colette | Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Remedying Police Brutality in America's Public Schools through Private Structural Reform under 42 U.S.C. § 1983


Billings, Colette, Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights


I. The Problem.....56

A. Introduction....56

B. History and Structure of School Policing .......57

II. The Solution: Private Civil Rights Litigation Under 42 U.S.C. 8 1983..59

A. Section 1983 Litigation as a Legal Remedy, Generally

B. Limitations of § 1983 Damage Suits.

C. A Better Solution: Private Structural Reform Litigation

III. The Supreme Court's Standing Doctrine as Articulated in City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, and Its Implications for the Availability of Injunctive Relief in § 1983 Actions.64

A. Standing in § 1983 Suits Pre-Lyons.64

B. The City of Los Angeles v. Lyons Decision.65

C. Standing to Pursue Injunctive Relief Post-Lyons: Credible Threat of Future Harm.67

IV. Beyond L yons: Structural Reform Litigation in the School Policing Setting.68

A. The Birmingham Schools Pepper Spray Case.69

B. Uniqueness of the School Policing Setting: Involuntariness and Increased Likelihood of Future Harm.71

V. What Lies Ahead: The Necessity and Difficulty of Vigilant Documentation.72

A. Involuntariness and Increased Risk of Exposure to Challenged Behavior.73

B. Authorization by Government Policy, Practice, or Custom . 74

C. Law-Abiding Plai_72.tiffs.76

VI. Conclusion.77

Civil rights litigation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is currently playing a pivotal role in challenging police practices and making police brutality an issue of national concern. Like the officers patrolling our streets, officers stationed in public schools-known as school resource officers- have also received media attention for a number of high-profile excessive force cases. In this paper, I explore the limitations of the § 1983 remedy for facilitating real change in policing institutions and argue, despite the limitations placed on the availability of injunctive relief in § 1983 actions by City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, recent efforts to use structural injunctions suggest the possibility of a more comprehensive approach toward challenging police brutality.

I. The Problem

A. Introduction

Reports of armed police officers' brutality against students in public schools are on the rise.1 Police officers stationed in Birmingham, Alabama, schools have pepper-sprayed and maced hundreds of high school students.2 In one particularly horrible instance, an officer allegedly sprayed a pregnant female student with chemical spray when she would not stop crying after an incident of sexual harassment.3 In Columbia, South Carolina, a police officer was caught on camera slamming a teen age student to the ground and dragging her out of the classroom.4 In Louisville, Kentucky, a thirteen-year-old was punched in the face by an officer for cutting a lunch line; just one week later, the same officer held a different thirteen-year-old in a chokehold, which allegedly caused brain injury after the student was rendered unconscious.5 In Houston, Texas, a police officer struck a sixteen-year-old student at least eighteen times with a police baton, causing injury to many parts of the student's body, including the head and neck, after a discussion about the student's confiscated cell phone.6 In Bastrop County, Texas, a police officer, attempting to break up a fight, tased a seventeen-year-old boy.7 The boy's subsequent fall to the ground led to a medically induced coma and surgery to repair a severe brain hemorrhage.8 In San Antonio, Texas, a police officer who witnessed a student punch another student followed the youth to a shed located behind a nearby home, and fatally shot the unarmed boy.9

B. History and Structure of School Policing

Officers have been utilized in K-12 schools for decades. A police officer assigned to a K-12 school is known as a school resource officer ("SRO").10 According to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), the best example of today's SRO program can be traced to 1963 when the Tucson, Arizona, Police Department "adopted the term of School Resource Officer and realized something had to be done for the school community and the relationship between youth and law enforcement. …

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