The School Resource Officer Pepper Sprayed a Child in Front of Me
15 years ago, I was walking down the hall of a semi-rural North Carolina school, after teaching my first class ever as a student teacher. The lesson had gone well. I was in a good mood, enjoying my first energy boost from managing a class full of laughing high school kids.
Next thing I knew, I was lying face down on the floor, coughing uncontrollably. The child on my left recovered faster than I did and shouted, “I’m gonna sue!” What was heartbreaking about his response was that he already knew exactly what had happened. He knew why we were on the floor. That meant he had witnessed something like this before.
I had no idea what was going on. At age 21, I’d been fortunate enough never to have inhaled pepper spray fumes before. On my hands and knees, I could see the bottom half of the officer standing to my right, yelling something I couldn’t make out. He was standing in the entrance of a women’s restroom. Everything was blurry and I felt confused.
I remember the school secretary was remarkably efficient, as if this was routine. It seemed like it was only seconds later that the child who had been pepper sprayed was in a wheelchair. She looked to be about 14 years old. I was still on the floor. So was the boy to my left who was planning his lawsuit.
“Do you have asthma?” the secretary was asking the child, in a cold voice. “Do you have asthma?” she asked again and again, louder and louder, drowning out the child’s attempts to mumble an answer. As I got my glasses straightened out, I saw that her eyes were terribly swollen. Who talks to a child like that, when they’ve had something so awful just happen to them? It was clear this was about assessing liability, not making sure she was genuinely okay.
The next day, I spoke to my partner teacher, my mentor in the program. She wasn’t surprised by what I witnessed and confirmed that it happened all the time. She also confirmed that the child’s race was no coincidence and tried to explain to me why she thought what happened was acceptable.
“Black girls are just more emotional, more…