A federal lawsuit filed late Wednesday claims the Chicago Board of Education, the city and two police officers violated the civil rights of a student who was shocked with a Taser during an altercation last month at her West Side school.
The suit accuses the police officers of using excessive force on 16-year-old student Dnigma Howard when she “was punched, tasered, stepped on and struck” by officers Johnnie Pierre and Sherry Tripp during the incident on Jan. 29 at Marshall High School, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court.
The suit also criticizes the Chicago Public Schools system and police for failing to provide officers assigned to the district with specific training and for violating the district’s own guidelines for how police officers should interact with students.
On Thursday, the girl’s father, Laurentio Howard, and his attorney, Andrew M. Stroth, called on the city’s leadership and next mayor to immediately address issues surrounding the vetting and use of police officers in the city’s schools.
“We’re here to make sure the mayor of Chicago, the future mayor of Chicago, the leadership of CPD and the leadership of CPS take action and address the situation around policing in schools,” Stroth said.
Stroth, a civil rights attorney with Action Injury Law Group representing Dnigma Howard in the suit, called the incident a “systemic failure” by CPS and police “that should never have happened.”
Stroth also questioned why the officers — he alleged they had “a history of using excessive force” — would be assigned to a public school.
“I don’t think either of these two officers should have been in that school,” Stroth saidt. “Dnigma’s case can be a catalyst for change … and there needs to be a better vetting system for police officers who work in schools.”
Officials with CPS declined to comment on Stroth’s charges. The police department did not return messages seeking comment.
Pierre, who joined the force in 2006, has filed at least 20 reports with the police department to explain his use of force and has been the subject of 18 complaints — five for use of force, according to data posted through the Invisible Institute’s Citizen’s Police Data Project. The data showed that two of the allegations were sustained and that Pierre was disciplined once for an operation/personnel violation and received a 15-day suspension.
Hired in 2013, Tripp has filed four use-of-force reports — two of which involved the use of a Taser — with the department and has been the subject of three complaints, according to the project’s data. None of the complaints were found to be sustained.
Both officers have higher than average honorable mentions, which are filed by other officers, according to the project’s data.
On Jan. 29, Dnigma’s father, Laurentio Howard, was called by Marshall’s assistant principal to pick up his daughter at the South Side school after she had completed her final exams because of Dnigma’s use of a cellphone in class, according to the suit. A security guard at the school also called Laurentio and told him to come to the school “immediately.”
Officers Pierre and Tripp then approached Dnigma, who has “difficulty regulating her emotions and is defensive when confronted,” the suit states. That is laid out in her Individualized Education Program, a document that establishes a learning and behavioral plan for students eligible for special education, the suit states.
As the three were walking near a set of stairs, one of the officers pushed Dnigma, causing her to grab the officers vest to keep from falling and which resulted in all three tumbling down the stairway, according to the suit, which then accuses the officers of punching and kneeling on Dnigma, causing her to have trouble breathing.
A spokesman for the police department said previously that Dnigma caused the officers to fall and said both officers were injured as a result of the altercation and were placed on medical leave.
A cellphone video shot by another student showed one officer firing his Taser at least three times at Dnigma as she lay on the floor.
“Chicago police should never have had to intervene if [CPS] just followed her IEP,” Laurentio Howard said Wednesday.
Dnigma has had an IEP throughout her enrollment at Marshall High School based on an emotional disability, according to the suit, which also accuses the officers of “escalating a student behavioral issue into an incident that resulted in felony charges against [Dnigma].”
Cook County prosecutors charged Dnigma with two felony counts of aggravated battery in connection with the incident, but the charges were dropped less than a week later “in the interest of justice,” according to a spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.
“If that video didn’t exist, [Dnigma] could have two felony convictions right now that would have changed the future of her life,” Stroth said.
After video from the incident was published by the Chicago Sun-Times, a spokesman for CPS called the incident “disturbing” and said neither officer would be returning to work at the school.
“CPS strives to create safe and supportive learning environments for all students, and this disturbing incident has absolutely no place in our schools,” CPS’s chief communications officer, Michael Passman, said at the time.
The suit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
“This lawsuit is about much more than any monetary award,” Stroth said.
Dnigma transferred to a new school and attended classes this week for first time since the incident, her father said.
“Right now it’s hard for her because it’s new,” Laurenito Howard said. “She got hurt, not only physically, but emotionally, so it’s going to be a road to her back on track.”