Note: we are republishing this story amid nationwide discussion regarding police accountability and the relationship between police officers and their communities.
Civil rights lawyers have sued Key West police and school district over the treatment of an eight-year-old special needs student, who was handcuffed, booked, and jailed on a felony battery charge for punching a teacher who wanted to punish him for sitting incorrectly in the school cafeteria.
Police body-cam video showed police officers frisking and putting metal handcuffs on the sobbing boy before they took him to jail. His mother said that police swabbed the boy’s mouth for DNA, took his mugshot and fingerprints, and then briefly locked him in a cell.
Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Crump filed the lawsuit accusing city and school officials of bringing police into a school setting without training or specific policies governing the arrests of students – particularly disabled children. The officers then showed "deliberate indifference" to what should have been handled as a behavioral issue, he said.
"Where is the decency? Where is the humanity? This is somebody's child," he said at an online news conference with the boy's mother, Bianca N. Digennaro.
However, Key West Police Chief Sean T. Brandenburg released a statement maintaining that officers did nothing wrong: "Based on the report, standard operating procedures were followed."
The Monroe County School District declined to comment on the matter, citing legal action.
The boy's mother and lawyer stated that the boy suffers from ADHD, depression, anxiety and oppositional defiance disorder, and was on two forms of medication that day in December 2018.
Digennaro stated that it took 8 months before prosecutors agreed not to prosecute. She repeatedly had to go to court and pay for an expensive forensic evaluation to defend her son.
"I refused to have them make him a convicted felon at the age of 8," she said, having been in the hospital the day the incident happened. "I wasn't there to protect my son from getting arrested, going to an adult jail, getting fingerprinted, having his mouth swabbed for DNA and getting a mug shot."
According to the Miami Herald, the incident at Grace Adams Elementary School started because the boy was not sitting properly on his cafeteria bench seat. A teacher asked him severally to sit down out of concerns for his safety.
School Resource Officer Michael Malgrat's arrest report stated that the teacher told the boy to set next to her but he refused, saying: "Don't put your hands on me."
When she told him to walk with her, he responded, "My mom is going to beat your a--," and punched her with his right hand.
The lawsuit states that the teacher didn't complain that she was injured. Malgrat was in the school's administrative office when the teacher and the boy arrived, and wrote that the boy "had his hands clenched into fists and he was postured as if he was ready to fight."
They called in two more officers, who lectured him in a hallway before booking him into Key West's juvenile justice facility on a felony battery charge.
Bodycam footage shows the officers telling the sobbing boy that he was "going to jail." They frisked him and put metal handcuffs on him, which were too big for his wrists.
"You understand this is very serious, OK? I hate that you had to put me into this position to do this. The thing about it is, you made a mistake. Now it's time for you to learn about it and to grow from it, not repeat the same mistake again," one of the officers is heard saying as they escort him out.
Sources: ABC 13