The mother of a little boy who was arrested and almost handcuffed after experiencing a mental health crisis at school has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over the incident, which was captured in viral body-camera footage.
“I refuse to let them make him a criminal,” the boy’s mother, Bianca N. Digennaro, said in a press conference Tuesday.
During his arrest on a felony battery charge in December 2018, officers from the Key West Police Department frisked and attempted to handcuff her then-8-year-old son, who had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, depression, anxiety, and ADHD. They soon realized his wrists were too small to hold the restraints, according to body-camera footage released Sunday by Benjamin Crump, one of the attorneys now involved in Digennaro’s lawsuit.
“You understand this is very serious, OK?” one officer told the boy, who is now 10, according to the footage.
“I hate that you put me in this position, that I have to do this, OK? Alright?” the officer, who has not been identified, continued, according to the footage. “The thing about it is you made a mistake, and now it’s time to learn from it and grow from it, right? Not repeat the same mistake again.”
The boy’s shoulders shook, and he appeared to wipe his nose on his shirt as he cried and nodded along, according to body-camera footage.
Attorneys said Tuesday that the boy’s father was in the building, although officers allegedly told him his father had left. A police cruiser was visible in the distance, just outside the school.
“I can feel how scared my son was, and it’s impossible to watch,” Digennaro said about the video. “I would never want any other parent to have to watch a video like that about their 8-year-old son.”
The boy was later taken to a juvenile justice facility, according to the Miami Herald, although his mother said he was processed at an adult jail, where he had his mugshot taken and was placed in a cell for a few minutes.
Crump said Tuesday that Digennaro had to fight for months to get her son’s charge dismissed, and that the boy “vividly remembers” the door being slammed on his cell. He’s suffered stomach aches, nightmares, headaches, and insomnia since his arrest, according to the lawsuit.
The incident that led to his arrest apparently started when a teacher at Gerald Adams Elementary repeatedly told the boy that he wasn’t sitting properly in his cafeteria seat, according to an arrest report reviewed by the Miami Herald.
When the boy didn’t respond, the teacher then asked him to sit next to her. He didn’t, and told her he didn’t want to be touched, according to the Miami Herald. So she told him to walk with her. The boy said his mom was going to beat her up, according to the Herald, and punched her in the chest.
The school district was aware of the boy’s disabilities, according to the lawsuit, since he was on an individualized education program. The teacher had allegedly placed him in a “classroom and lunchroom setting that they knew was not appropriate for his disability,” according to the lawsuit.
Officer Michael Malgrat, one of three officers named in the lawsuit Tuesday, said in a report reviewed by the Herald that the boy “had his hands clenched into fists and he was postured as if he was ready to fight” when he and the teacher came to the school’s administrative office.
Crump, who is also representing the family of George Floyd, said during a press conference Tuesday that the boy, who is only 3 feet 6 inches tall and weighs 64 pounds, posed no threat to the officers. The complaint, filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, names the city, the Monroe County School District, three officers, a teacher, and two school officials as defendants.
“This mother had to hire a criminal lawyer to aggressively defend these charges — these allegations that her son had committed a felony when he simply was having a mental illness crisis because of his disabilities that had been well diagnosed,” Crump said in Tuesday’s press conference.
The Key West Police Department, the city, and the Monroe County School District did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment. Key West Police Chief Sean T. Brandenburg told the Miami Herald that officers had followed standard operating procedures.
Police departments have repeatedly been criticized for arresting children at their schools over minor incidents. One Orlando officer was fired last year after arresting two school children in one day, including a 6-year-old girl who had allegedly kicked someone.
Get a personalized roundup of VICE’s best stories in your inbox.
By signing up to the VICE newsletter you agree to receive electronic communications from VICE that may sometimes include advertisements or sponsored content.