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Spraying raises questions

Officials wonder how the agent used could have affected so many students.

By JONATHAN ABEL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 27, 2007


DUNEDIN - Four years ago, in a cafeteria full of kids, a school resource officer at Pinellas Park Middle School used pepper spray to break up a fight between two sixth graders.

The mist spread through the room, aided by ceiling fans, and caused 40 kids to complain of exposure.

After that incident, the Pinellas Sheriff's Office switched from pepper spray to pepper foam for its school-based deputies.

The shaving-cream-style foam doesn't spread to onlookers as easily, which is why Thursday's incident at Dunedin High School was all the more surprising to deputies.

In a crowded courtyard, a school resource officer used the pepper foam to break up a brawl among four girls.

Many people who witnessed the incident complained of burning and tearing. Paramedics ended up treating 47 people, two of whom were taken to the hospital.

Sgt. Jim Bordner said the deputies involved - and their supervisor - believe it is "highly unlikely that this many people actually experienced a secondary exposure."

School district spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said she was not aware of any complaints from parents. Michael Bessette, associate superintendant for school safety and security, said the incident was being reviewed at the school level, but only to determine the cause of the fight, not to evaluate the use of the pepper foam.

General orders of the Sheriff's Office allow for the use of "less lethal force" in confrontational crowd situations or when necessary to prevent injury or property damage.

The school district has no policies that directly apply to the situation.

"It has not come up that we have needed to discuss it, but I'm sure there will be some discussion," said board chairwoman Mary Brown. "It's easy to say what should and shouldn't happen, but if you're not there, you don't know what the severity of it is."

Board member Janet Clark said she'd seen her share of fights as a middle school teacher, the most vicious of which probably deserved pepper spray, but the bystanders were not without fault.

"I don't have a lot of sympathy for the crowd of kids who crowd around a fight," Clark said. "The collateral damage, I think, is sometimes earned."

According to a more detailed recounting from the Sheriff's Office, the brawl began as two separate fights around 11:30 a.m.

Deputies were able to break up one fight immediately, but a crowd gathered around the other fight. The throng was so thick that the school resource officer couldn't get to the center of it - every time he moved one student out of the way, another one filled that space.

"He yelled warnings that he was going to spray if the fight continued," explained Sheriff's spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda. "Then he deployed the spray by reaching up over the crowd and trying to spray down at the fighters."

The crowd scattered and paramedics were called.

The four students involved in the fight were charged with disorderly conduct. Their names were not released by authorities because they are juveniles facing misdemeanor charges.

The use of pepper foam in schools is not common.

Thursday's incident was the first time pepper spray has been used this year in any of the 16 schools that the Pinellas Sheriff's Office staffs with resource deputies.

In the same period, there were two Taser strikes and seven incidents where deputies used their hands to apply force. Officials pointed out that more than 80 criminal cases were investigated in those schools over the same period.

Still, some parents were concerned.

Jennifer Caldwell's son, Jordan, is a freshman at Dunedin High. He was hit with a few sprinkles of the pepper agent, but was actually quite excited about the whole incident.

His mother was less thrilled.

"My feelings are they should have been able to remove the girls - these are big, strong men - without having to use anything, Taser, pepper spray, or anything," Caldwell said.

Staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 727 445-4157.