After cops wrestled a student down a flight of stairs and used a stun gun on her after she was caught using her cellphone at a West Side school, an officer aggressively pointed and screamed at her father who arrived to pick her up.
“Did you see what your daughter just did to us?” a visibly upset police officer yelled, according to body cam footage from another cop who responded to the incident. “Your daughter is going to jail.”
Attorneys for 17-year-old Dnigma Howard, who is now suing the city and school district in a federal lawsuit alleging her civil rights were violated, are trying to get a Cook County juvenile court judge to allow the video’s release to the public.
Another video of the confrontation, first published by the Sun-Times, led CPS to pull the police from Marshall High School and added fuel to an ongoing debate about whether any officers should be in schools.
The special needs student, Dnigma Howard, along with her father and attorneys, filed a motion last Monday in Cook County Circuit Court’s Juvenile Justice Division seeking the release of the body camera footage.
Dnigma and her attorneys want the juvenile judge to approve the release of footage that was part of the case against Dnigma after she was charged with felonies in the incident.
Those charges were later dropped by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office “in the interest of justice.”
Records in that case are protected by the Juvenile Court Act, which seeks to protect minors from the records becoming public. In this case, the motion argues, Dnigma would waive her privacy so that the public can see the footage.
A hearing on the motion has been scheduled for Monday.
Dnigma and her father also filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Chicago Police Department after it refused to release the video in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed earlier this month.
The records request sought copies of “all audio and visual recordings” from the Jan. 29 incident. The police department denied the request Monday, claiming the records were exempt because they are part of an ongoing investigation.
“This is the exact argument they lost in the Laquan McDonald case and in other cases,” according to Matt Topic, an attorney with Loevy and Loevy who is representing Dnigma in the FOIA lawsuit.
“If this was an officer-involved shooting, it would have been released already,” Topic said.
Representatives for the city’s Law Department and Chicago Public Schools declined to comment. Attempts to reach the officers through their attorneys were unsuccessful.
Included in the materials that Dnigma and her father want public is body camera footage recorded by officers arriving at the school as Howard was taken into custody by officers Sherri Tripp and Johnnie Pierre.
A Sun-Times reporter viewed an edited version of the footage that was part of a video produced by Dnigma’s attorneys as part of a settlement demand letter. That video was shared with attorneys for the city and Board of Education earlier this month.
When others help restrain Dnigma, Tripp stands up and asks, “Is there a mark on my face?” and, “Is it bleeding?”
“You gotta relax,” someone says twice, though it’s not clear if they are talking to Tripp or to Dnigma.
Tripp then walks toward Dnigma’s father and yells at him.
The incident began when Dnigma was seen using a cell phone in class and was told to leave the school after completing her exams.
A school security guard directed Dnigma to leave the school and wouldn’t allow her to talk to an assistant principal or a counselor, which Laurentio Howard has said was a violation of Dnigma’s Individualized Education program, a contract between the district and students eligible for special education services.
Officers Pierre and Tripp, who were assigned to work at the school, then also directed Dnigma to leave the building.
In a brief, unsourced audio clip included in the edited video package, Pierre allegedly says, “She turns around, swings on me” in reference to what led to the physical altercation. In a second audio clip, Pierre allegedly states, “As I fall down the stairs, I grab her, I grab her leg, so now she’s falling down the stairs with me.”
In Dnigma’s arrest report, the officers reported Dnigma “initiated a physical altercation with officers” that led to all three of them tumbling down the stairs.
But school security camera footage appears to show Pierre grabbing Dnigma without provocation and shoving her toward a school stairwell.
Another security video then shows Pierre dragging Dnigma down a flight of stairs by her leg. At the bottom of the stairs, Tripp punches Dnigma repeatedly in the face as she is being held to the ground. Pierre then fires a stun gun at Dnigma.
Dnigma, who acknowledged biting an officer’s hand during the altercation, was charged with felony counts of aggravated battery. Dnigma’s federal lawsuit claims the officer made false statements to charge Dnigma and justify their use of excessive force.
Both officers have been removed from the school and the incident is under investigation by the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.
Attorney Andrew M. Stroth, who represents Dnigma in her federal suit, said Dnigma would likely still be facing felony charges if not for video of the incident.
“Without the video, Dnigma’s life could have been destroyed by the unjustified actions and false statements given by these officers,” Stroth said. “The citizens of Chicago should have the right to see this.”
The case has led to a long-overdue examination of the use of police officers in the city’s schools, with some calling for their complete removal.
Last year, the city’s Inspector General has found systematic failures to train and oversee officers assigned to the city’s public schools, and in June, the office said the police department had “failed” to address the issues.
Since the incident, the police department has hosted a multiple community forums on the use and training of officers assigned to schools and held the first training session in a decade that specifically addressed issues those officer’s face.
Last month the school board passed its first formal agreement with the police department since 2016 that directs that police should only become involved in a school incident when a crime has been committed, or when there’s a serious or imminent threat.