KEY WEST, Fla. -- Civil rights lawyers sued the police and school district in Key West on Tuesday over their treatment of an 8-year-old boy with special needs who was handcuffed, booked and briefly jailed on a felony battery charge after he was accused of punching a teacher who sought to discipline him for sitting improperly in the school cafeteria.
A police body-cam video of the child's arrest shows officers frisking and putting metal handcuffs on the sobbing child before taking him to jail, where his mother said his mouth was swabbed for DNA, his mugshot and fingerprints were taken, and he was briefly locked in a cell.
The lawsuit filed by Tallahassee attorney Benjamin Crump accused city and school officials of bringing police into a school setting without training or specific policies governing the arrests of students - disabled children in particular. As a result, the officers 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," Crump said at an online news conference with the boy's mother, Bianca N. Digennaro.
Key West Police Chief Sean T. Brandenburg said in a statement Monday that his officers did nothing wrong: "Based on the report, standard operating procedures were followed," he said.
The Monroe County School District said it can't comment because of the legal action.
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The boy's mother and lawyer said he suffers from ADHD, depression, anxiety and oppositional defiance disorder, and was taking two forms of medication that day in December 2018. Digennaro said it took eight months before prosecutors agreed to no longer prosecute. She had to go to court repeatedly and pay for an expensive forensic evaluation in defense of her son.
"I refused to have them make him a convicted felon at the age of 8," said Digennaro, who was in the hospital on 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," she said.
Crump has a growing list of clients alleging police abuse, including the family of George Floyd, the Black man who died at the hands of a Minneapolis officer in May.
The Miami Herald reported that the incident in Grace Adams Elementary School began when the boy was not sitting properly on his cafeteria bench seat, and a teacher asked him several times to sit down out of concerns for his safety.
According to School Resource Officer Michael Malgrat's arrest report, which the newspaper obtained, the teacher then told the boy to set next to her, and he refused, saying "Don't put your hands on me." Then she told him to walk with her, and the boy said, "My mom is going to beat your a--," and punched her with his right hand.
The lawsuit says the teacher didn't complain of being injured.
Malgrat, who was in the school's administrative office when the teacher and the boy arrived, wrote that the boy "had his hands clenched into fists and he was postured as if he was ready to fight." Two more officers were called, and they lectured him in a hallway before booking him into Key West's juvenile justice facility on a felony battery charge.
The video footage shows officers telling the sobbing boy that he's "going to jail." They frisk him and then have him experience the feeling of metal handcuffs, 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 says as they escort him out.