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Police, school officials say Taser use OK

Superior High School scored a dubious first last week when law enforcement officers subdued a student with a Taser stun gun. The electronic devices have been part of the Superior Police Department's arsenal for the past two years. Last week, Offi...

Superior High School scored a dubious first last week when law enforcement officers subdued a student with a Taser stun gun.

The electronic devices have been part of the Superior Police Department's arsenal for the past two years. Last week, Officer Jeff Darst was the first to deploy one in a school. The target was a 15-year-old boy.

Assistant Police Chief Chuck LaGesse called the Taser's use reasonable as officers and school administrators struggled to gain control of a violent situation.

"I'm not uncomfortable with it," said Jay Mitchell, school district superintendent. He believes officers used necessary means to defuse a difficult situation.

"In this particular case, the young man involved was out of control," Mitchell said.

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The Taser, a brand name for a stun gun that can propel wires toward its intended subject, wasn't fired.

"They used it as more of a stun gun to get his attention," Mitchell said.

The adult-sized child, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs more than 300 pounds, was not injured by the incident, according to police reports.

"... he appeared fine, and there was very little, if any, sign of Taser use on his right back area," Darst wrote in his report.

An electronic control device like a Taser transmits electrical pulses that lock up skeletal muscles during the few seconds it is applied. Barbs are either shot out of the gun to hook into the suspect's clothing or skin, or the gun is placed close to the skin causing a stun effect. The Superior Police Department's X26 and older M26 Tasers pack 50,000 volts of electricity, up to 26 watts of power and a small fraction of an amp.

"Amperage is what makes electricity deadly," LaGesse said. "What makes Tasers effective is the wattage."

The department deploys its Tasers about 20 times a year, on average, and every officer is trained to use them.

LaGesse said use of the device at a school is uncommon and generally unnecessary, but not prohibited.

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"It can happen," he said. Now it has.

According to Superior police reports, the incident started when the student began swearing at staff members and refusing to follow directions. When School Liaison Officer Tom Johnson was called to Assistant Principal Steve Olson's office to issue the 15-year-old a citation, problems escalated. The boy tried to leave and swung at Johnson when the officer stopped him, according to reports. Johnson was able to place the boy up against the wall with the help of Olson and Assistant Principal Bill Punkyo. By that point, Johnson wrote in his report, the boy "was totally out of control ... flailing his arms and trying to either hit us and/or get away."

The three adults were able to bring him to the floor, but the boy continued to fight. He repeatedly kicked Johnson in the lower back and tried to bite both school officials, reports stated.

Johnson called in more officers to help prevent the boy from hurting himself or the adults. Three officers responded and Darst deployed the Taser as they struggled to apply handcuffs. The boy complied after the stun was applied.

At the point when officers entered the room, LaGesse said, they had other options to gain control -- using pressure points, pepper spray or a baton.

"All of these are more likely to create injury than a Taser," LaGesse said.

Electronic control devices are not governed by the state.

"We don't have any mandate at the moment," said Ken Hammond, law enforcement education director for the Wisconsin Department of Justice Training and Standards Bureau.

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While the bureau does offer sample policies on its Web site, he said "Policies are a matter of home rule and local control."

Superior's use of nonlethal force policy places Tasers on the same level as pepper spray. They may be deployed to control a dangerous or violent person when other tactics have been ineffective or the officer believes other options would be either unsafe or ineffective.

"Our policy reflects realities of the use of force policy," LaGesse said. "Our guidelines take into consideration, 'What do you need to do to establish control?' Age is really secondary."

Use of Tasers by law enforcement officers is not prohibited by Superior school district policies.

"When police take over, they do whatever they think is necessary," Mitchell said. Crafting a policy to prevent Taser use, he said, would be like tying the hands of police officers.

"Having a person out of control, trying to deal with him and not hurt him is a difficult situation to be in," Mitchell said.

The superintendent is currently working on a plan that could be put into operation at schools to defuse such situations in the future.

"It certainly could happen again," Mitchell said.

Parents who were contacted for comment declined this morning.

The 15-year-old was arrested on charges of battery to a law enforcement officer, attempted battery to school officials, resisting an officer and disorderly conduct. He was then released to his mother.

Call Maria Lockwood at call (715) 395-5025 or e-mail mlockwood@superiortelegram.com .

Related Topics: POLICE
Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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