florida police arrest child school
© Key West Police Department
Screen shot from Key West Police body cam footage
Lawyers for the mother of a now 10-year-old boy who Key West police officers tried to handcuff in 2018 at his elementary school after he was accused of punching a teacher filed a civil rights lawsuit Tuesday in federal court against the school district, the city, the individual officers involved as well as the teacher and two school officials.

The video of the incident at Gerald Adams Elementary School in Key West received national attention this week after the attorney for the mother, civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, posted it on his Twitter account Monday morning.

It outraged police critics already angry over the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old emergency room technician shot and killed in March in her Louisville, Kentucky, home by police serving a no-knock warrant, looking for drugs. No drugs were found in the home.

The video also stoked concerns over how police handled cases involving minors, including the handcuffing of a 6-year-old girl in Orlando at her school in September 2019.

"Twenty-first century policing should be built on trust and transparency," said Alex Piquero, a University of Miami criminologist and chair of the school's sociology department. "This video shows transparent distrust, precisely how we should not be treating children and certainly not helpful to the community at large."

The footage shows one officer placing the sobbing boy against a filing cabinet inside the school office, frisking him and then trying to put metal handcuffs on him, which were too big to fit the child's wrists.

He is also heard telling the boy he's "going to jail." The boy was booked at a juvenile detention facility in Key West on a felony battery charge.

"He vividly remembers them slamming the big doors with the bars on them. That's the perspective of an 8-year-old child," Crump said during an online press conference Tuesday morning.

The incident happened on Dec. 14, 2018. The Monroe County State Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute the case about nine months after the arrest.

In addition to suing the city and school district, the legal action is against officers Michael Malgrat, Kenneth Waite and Fred Sims, Glen Archer teacher Ashley Henriquez, principal Fran Herin and assistant principal Kyle Sheer.

The lawsuit's allegations include that the named parties violated the boy's civil rights by using excessive force, not intervening in his arrest and not considering his disabilities during the incident.

"We're here because some authorities in the school and within the police department in Key West, Florida, felt that it was appropriate to arrest and charge an 8-year-old child who was 64 pounds, three-and-a-half feet tall, with a felony because he was having a mental illness crisis," Crump said.

According to the arrest report, Henriquez, the teacher, approached the boy in the school's cafeteria because he was not sitting properly in his seat. When he wouldn't listen to her, she went to get him to have him sit with her. This is when the boy punched her in the chest, Henriquez told police.

Crump, who is representing the family of Floyd, the Black man who died on May 25 after a white Minnesota police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes, said the boy suffers from several psychiatric conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiance disorder and adjustment disorder with mixed disturbance of emotional conduct.

He said school officials and police should have handled the situation with these conditions in mind that day.

"A mental health crisis at a school, and they feel it is appropriate to arrest, charge and have him become a convicted felon at 8 years old," Crump said.

The boy's mother, Bianca Digennaro, said her son also has anxiety and depression, for which he takes two types of medications. She said her son's teachers and the rest of the school staff were aware of his special needs on the day of the incident.

"Everybody knew this," Digennaro said at the press conference.

Digennaro, 48, was in Miami-Dade County for a medical procedure when the incident occurred, she said Tuesday. She added that she finds it difficult to watch the video.

"I can tell and I can feel how scared my son was," she said.

Pennsylvania civil rights attorney Devon Jacob, a member of Crump's legal team in the Digennaro case, is a former police officer. Responding to Key West police Chief Sean Brandenburg's statement Monday to the Miami Herald saying, based on the arrest report, his officers did nothing wrong, Jacob said Tuesday that he should resign.

"That's not the correct leader for that department," he said.

Alyson Crean, spokesman for the city of Key West and the department, declined to comment Tuesday because of the lawsuit.

"We cannot comment on open litigation," Crean said.

The school district also declined to comment.

"The District has been advised by its attorneys not to comment on this matter due to ongoing legal proceedings," a statement sent from the district Tuesday reads.

Representatives of the South Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents Key West officers, did not immediately comment, nor did representatives from the teachers' union in the Keys, United Teachers of Monroe.

Digennaro's attorneys, who include Fort Lauderdale lawyer Sue-Ann Robinson, also lashed out Tuesday against the State Attorney's Office for waiting almost a year before declining to prosecute.

Val Winter, chief assistant state attorney, said the process was delayed because the original prosecutor assigned to the case went on maternity leave, and also because Degennaro changed attorneys in March 2019.

The original attorneys for both sides agreed the boy should complete a mental health evaluation before the case progressed, Winter said. The charge was dismissed Oct. 7, 2019, Winter said.

"In consultation with the child's lawyer, a mental health evaluation was conducted. Based on the doctor's evaluation, the child's age, and victim input, our office determined it was in the child's best interest that he receive mental health treatment and the charges be dismissed," Winter said in a statement.

"Once we received confirmation of services based on the doctor's report, the case was dismissed by the original prosecutor who had returned from maternity leave."

Sources close to the investigation said the boy's father, who is not married to Digennaro, went to the school that day and asked the officers to scare his son as a way to improve his behavior. Asked by two reporters about this Tuesday, Crump said he did not know, and that it was irrelevant either way.

"Police officers have no authority to arrest based on the instructions of lay persons," he said in a written response during the press conference.