Two years after Key West police officers arrested her crying 8-year-old at his elementary school, Bianca Digennaro has filed a lawsuit against the Florida city and the school district, accusing authorities of “traumatizing” her son over a “temper tantrum.”
The federal civil lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida on Tuesday, details the December 2018 arrest of Digennaro’s 8-year-old son, who has special needs, after he allegedly punched a teacher during an outburst.
Body-camera footage of the arrest, which went viral on social media this week, shows officers trying to handcuff the child and telling him he’s “going to jail.” The officers then lecture the boy, escorting him out of school, and eventually booking him into Key West’s juvenile justice facility on a felony battery charge. Nine months later, a prosecutor dismissed the charges.
“The authorities tried to make him a criminal,” Digennaro said during a Tuesday press conference. “I am here for my son because I refuse to let them make him a convicted felon at the age of 8 just because he was having a mental breakdown.”
The lawsuit obtained by The Daily Beast—which names the city of Key West, the three officers that arrested the child, several administrators at Gerald Adams Elementary, and the Monroe County School District as defendants—is seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The suit is also seeking a declaratory judgment that the child’s rights were violated, “a written admission of the allegations,” and an apology for the incident.
“This is a heartbreaking example of how our educational and policing systems train children to be criminals by treating them like criminals,” Ben Crump, a civil-rights attorney representing Digennaro, said. “If convicted, the child, in this case, would have been a convicted felon at eight years old. This little boy was failed by everyone who played a part in this horrific incident.”
The lawsuit states the Dec. 14, 2018, incident at Gerald Adams Elementary began when Ashley Henriquez, a teacher, noticed the child “had refused to sit on a bench properly” while eating lunch.
Digennaro said Tuesday her son has several emotional and behavioral disabilities, including ADHD, depression, anxiety, and Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Adjustment Disorder with Mixed Disturbance of Emotional Conduct. But despite his having an individualized educational program, on Dec. 14 the school placed the 8-year-old with a substitute teacher “who had no awareness or concern about his needs.”
When the child refused to comply with Henriquez’s requests to sit properly, she asked him to come sit next to her. The child refused, at which point the teacher tried to “physically move” him. Telling Henriquez “not to put her hands on him,” the boy then punched her “in the chest,” according to the lawsuit.
School Resource Officer Michael Malgrat’s arrest report, which was obtained by the Miami Herald, says that Henriquez took the boy to the school’s administrative office, where Malgrat said he “had his hands clenched into fists and he was postured as if he was ready to fight.”
The lawsuit states two more officers—Kenneth Waite and Fred Sims—were “summoned to the school.” “In an attempt to teach [the boy] a lesson, despite knowing that [the boy] was not ‘going to jail’ (in the common understanding of that statement),” the three officers “intentionally led” the 8-year-old to believe “he was going to jail.”
“So you know where you are going? You are going to jail. So you need to stand up and put your hands behind your back,” one of the officers told the child, according to the lawsuit.
In the body-cam footage, the officers can be seen telling the sobbing child that he’s “going to jail" before they frisk him and attempt to place metal handcuffs around his tiny arms. But because the handcuffs were too big for the boy’s wrists, the officers instead told him to “walk with his hands in front of him.” In the video, the visibly upset boy can be heard calling out for his father—who was still in the building.
“You understand this is very serious, OK? And, I hate that you put me in this position that I have to do this. OK? All right? The thing about it is, you made a mistake, now it is time to learn from it and grow from it. Right? Not repeat the same mistake again. OK? All right,” one of the officers states, according to the lawsuit and body-camera footage.
The boy was escorted out of the building and into a marked patrol car. Digennaro said Tuesday that nine months after the incident, the charges were dropped against her son—after a second prosecutor was assigned to the case and determined it to be “ridiculous.”
“As a direct result of the Defendants’ conduct, [the boy] suffered a psychological injury that manifested itself physically, i.e., loss of breath, hives, stomach aches, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, and refusal to sleep alone,” the lawsuit states.
In a statement, Key West Police Chief Sean T. Brandenburg asserts that his office did nothing wrong during the incident, and “based on the report, standard operating procedures were followed.” A police spokesperson also declined to comment on the status of the investigation because it involved a minor.
A spokesperson for Monroe County School District also declined to comment on the lawsuit or incident.