A Florida mother whose 8-year-old son with special needs was arrested and imprisoned before having felony charges levied against him is suing the police department and school district she believes failed her child.
On Tuesday, Bianca Digennaro and a team of lawyers - including Ben Crump, who also represents the family of George Floyd - announced they were suing the Key West Police Department and the Monroe County School District over what they believe is a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“I’m here for my son because I refuse to let [the police and state prosecutors] make him a convicted felon at the age of 8 just because he was having a mental breakdown,” Ms Digennaro said.
Ms Digennaro said her son has ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, severe anxiety and depression.
In 2018, her son - then 8-years-old - was chastised for not sitting correctly on his bench in the cafeteria of Grace Adams Elementary School. A teacher asked him to sit several times and, when he did not comply, asked him to sit with her.
According to the arrest report from the school’s resource officer, Michael Malgrat, the boy warned the teacher “don’t put your hands on me” and later that “my mom is going to beat your as**” before punching her.
After the boy was escorted to the school’s administrative office, a pair of police officers lectured him and told him he was “going to jail.”
A police bodycam video of the arrest went viral earlier this week. In the video, the police are seen lecturing the boy before taking him into custody.
“You understand this is very serious, OK? I hate that you had to put me into this position to do this,” one officer says while walking him to a police cruiser. “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.”
The boy - whose wrists were so small the handcuffs fell off of him - was arrested and charged with battery.
Ms Digennaro said she was upset because she couldn’t be at the school to protect her son because she was out of town for a medical procedure.
“I couldn’t protect him from being arrested, from going to an adult jail, from being swabbed for DNA and having taken a mug shot,” she said.
The boy claims he was locked up in a jail cell for a few minutes, but told his mom he remembers the officers slamming the heavy, barred jail cell door shut.
Sean Brandenburg, the chief of the Key West Police Department, defended his officer’s actions.
“Based on the report, standard operating procedures were followed,” he said.
Mr Jacobs, a former police officer, said the fact that the chief cleared his officers before conducting an internal investigation troubled him.
“As a former police officer, I'm appalled at what happened and the fact that the chief came out before any internal investigation and cleared his officers. That's not the correct leader for that department,” Mr Jacobs said.
Following the boy’s arrest, a federal prosecutor moved to follow through on the battery charges, which would have made the 8-year-old a felon.
Ms Digennaro fought a two-year legal battle and eventually the felony charges were dismissed via null process.
The mother said her boy is doing “better in school” now but that the experience was “very traumatic” and that her son misses going to “a regular school setting.”
The Key West Police Department said it could not comment on ongoing litigation.