Keep Tasers out of Texas schools

On Nov. 20, 2013, Bastrop County Sheriff’s deputy Randy McMillan used a Taser on 17-year-old student Noe Nino de Rivera in the hallway of Cedar Creek High School. The teenager then fell to the ground, hit his head on the concrete floor and was placed in a medically-induced coma, in which he remained for 52 days, finally awakening last Monday. According to a lawyer representing the Rivera family in a civil lawsuit against the school district, the teenager’s condition was life-threatening, and he almost died several times. Because of McMillan’s actions, Rivera suffered permanent brain damage, and his life will never be the same.

Had Rivera acted aggressively toward McMillan, use of the weapon might have been justified. Indeed, the official story from the sheriff’s office was that McMillan and another deputy, Timothy Stalcup, were responding to a fight between Rivera’s girlfriend and another student when Rivera refused to cooperate. According to a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, Rivera “looked as though he was ready to fight.” But students who witnessed the incident have testified that Rivera did nothing to interfere with the deputies and that he hardly acted aggressively — the witnesses even claim that Rivera was trying to back away when McMillan fired the Taser.

And now, security video obtained by the Austin American-Statesman and local TV news station KVUE seems to corroborate the students’ testimony. The video, while grainy, clearly shows that the fight was long over when McMillan fired his weapon. The video offers no indication that Rivera hit, pushed or even touched either of the deputies, and it’s apparent that the fight had been over for several minutes by the time McMillan used the Taser. Several students have even testified that Rivera’s hands were at his sides when McMillan fired.

According to the Austin Independent School District Police Department’s Taser Policy, which was provided to The Daily Texan by Tiffany Young, a district spokeswoman, an officer should only use a Taser “to gain control of a resistive subject, and not merely to gain compliance.” In other words, if an officer is trying to arrest a subject, and that subject is physically resisting, then Taser use may be justified. But if a subject is simply uncooperative or is refusing to follow an officer’s orders, that officer should not use a Taser. 

Based on the Statesman’s security video and student testimony, Rivera was clearly not physically resisting the deputies. But even so, had McMillan chosen to fire his weapon in response to physical resistance, it still would have been a mistake — a tragic mistake, too. Rivera will have to live with the effects of permanent brain damage for the rest of his life. 

Granted, the incident did not occur within AISD, and the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office probably has its own specific policy on Taser use. But when it comes to the use of a deadly weapon — The New York Times reported in 2012 that the electric shock from a Taser can lead to cardiac arrest and sudden death — on children in our schools, law enforcement must be held to exacting and precise standards. 

The need for stringent use policies applies not just to school districts but to any place where police may carry Tasers, which includes the UT campus. The official UTPD policy on Taser use prevents officers from using them on pregnant women, children who appear to be under the age of 14 and the elderly or disabled. The policy also specifies that a Taser should not be used “against persons displaying passive resistance,” but that is defined as “[offering] no physical resistance to arrest, simply [going] limp, or [making] no overt act of aggressive behavior.” With differing interpretations of what constitutes resistance, cooperative UT students could find themselves on the wrong side of a Taser while, disturbingly, the cop involved might find themselves in the right under UTPD’s current policies. 

In the weeks following the incident, the American Civil Liberties Union — along with six other organizations including the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and Texans Care for Children — wrote a letter advocating for a ban on Taser and pepper spray use in schools. “Packing a shock of up to 50,000 volts, Tasers are designed to restrain adults,” the letter explained. “They simply should not be used on children.”

We agree. We recognize that school resource officers are tasked with keeping our schools safe, and we understand that this is no small feat. But if a student refuses to cooperate with law enforcement, there are always alternatives to firing a weapon. In Rivera’s case, the deputies could have easily restrained the teenager without having to use a Taser; the Rivera family’s attorney explained to the Statesman that “Noe’s not too tall, and he’s a short little guy” who only weighs 130 pounds. It defies logic to think that two grown men who have been specifically trained to subdue uncooperative subjects would have been unable to detain Rivera without using a Taser.

Though we must always support school resource officers and their mission to keep our schools safe, we must also remember that a Taser can be a deadly weapon. There is simply no excuse for what happened to Noe Nino de Rivera, and there is no logical reason why school resource officers should carry and use deadly weapons on children in Texas schools — or, for that matter, on any undeserving citizen.