Dnigma Howard, 16, was pushed and dragged down a flight of stairs by police officers at her Chicago school before being hit with a stun gun, newly released surveillance video reveals.
Howard’s father has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Chicago, the Chicago Board of Education, and Officers Johnnie Pierre and Sherry Tripp. His attorneys argue that the officers violated the teen’s civil rights. The teen is referred to as D.H. in the documents.
Dnigma was seen on a separate video posted to Facebook kicking at the officers while she was on the ground. But she says her moves were in self-defense. She was initially charged with two felony counts of battery but the prosecutors dropped the charges against Howard less than a week later.
Here’s what you need to know.
1. Dnigma Howard Was Removed From Class Due to a Behavioral Problem; Surveillance Video Shows an Officer Tackle the Teen Seemingly Without Provocation
The incident at Marshall High School on the west side of Chicago occurred on January 29, 2019. The amended complaint, filed on April 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, explained that Dnigma Howard had been asked to leave school that day because of a “student conduct issue, specifically having her cell phone out in class.”
Her father, Laurentio Howard, explained to WLS-TV at the time that the school called him to come pick up his daughter. He was told that his daughter had been flipping desks over during a confrontation with the assistant principal.
According to the lawsuit, Dnigma Howard was initially escorted by a school security officer, who did not touch the teen or use any physical force. Chicago Police officers Johnnie Pierre and Sherry Tripp arrived to assist. The officers wrote in their police report that Howard had refused to leave the building, became violent and caused them all to fall down the stairs, as reported by the Chicago-Sun Times.
But surveillance video from the school contradicts the officers’ account. In the video, embedded above, you can see Howard standing between the two officers near the top of the stairs. There is no audio on the video. Howard takes a step to her left, and Officer Pierre suddenly grabs her by the arms. She appears to resist as they move toward the stairs. You can see Howard begin to fall as she moves out of the frame. Several students gathered at the top of the stairs to watch what was going on.
Another camera overlooking the bottom of the stairs shows one of the officers dragging Howard down the steps by her leg, with the other officer on top of the teen. Officer Pierre is seen placing his foot on Howard’s chest as she struggles on the ground. The lawsuit states that Officer Tripp “forcefully pressed her arm into D.H.’s neck” and punched Howard multiple times in the face and chest. The lawsuit adds that Howard has asthma and that she struggled to breathe during the confrontation.
Howard was treated at a hospital, as were both of the officers.
2. Chicago Police Officers Used a Taser on Dnigma Howard; Her Attorney Has Accused the Cops of Lying
Another student recorded part of the confrontation and posted it on social media. That version begins with Dnigma Howard laying on the ground after having been dragged down the steps.
The officers use a stun gun on the teen, who was seen kicking her legs and punching at the officers. Other students are heard reacting to the taser and exclaiming, “Damn! That’s not worth it!” It’s not clear what Howard was saying to the officers or what they were saying back to her.
Her father, Laurentio, had arrived at the school by that point. The lawsuit claims that the officers did not allow him to intervene with his daughter. It also claims that the officers never attempted to ask school officials for help, either. Mr. Howard told WLS-TV that the situation was devastating. “I was thinking, ‘If I jump in they’re going to shoot me. And if I don’t jump in, they’re going to hurt my daughter really bad.'”
The federal lawsuit accuses the officers of making “deliberately false statements about the incident,” such as claiming that Howard had taken a swing at them.
3. Dnigma Howard Claimed Self-Defense & Prosecutors Dropped Felony Charges Against Her
Prosecutors charged Dnigma Howard with two counts of felony aggravated battery in juvenile court. As explained in the lawsuit, Howard was not allowed to return to school while the case progressed. She had to wear an electronic monitoring device and remain at her home.
Attorney Andrew Stroth, who is representing the Howards, wrote in the amended complaint that Howard’s physical moves against the officers, while she was on the ground, had been self-defense. “She was actually trying to shield herself from the officers’ vicious and unwarranted attack.”
On February 6, 2019, prosecutors dropped the charges against Howard. She spoke with CBS Chicago after the charges were dismissed. She called the officers’ use of force excessive. “It hurt. I was like, dang, I got charged for protecting myself… It was just my word against the court’s word.”
Howard’s father told reporters that his daughter has a job and plans to go to college. “This is another strike against a person that was accused of wrongdoing. And I’m glad it was vindicated today by the state’s attorney.”
4. A Federal Lawsuit Alleges That Dnigma Howard’s Cvil Rights Were Violated & Calls on the City of Chicago to Implement Better Training for Officers Assigned to Schools
The amended federal lawsuit filed on April 11, 2019, claims that the officers violated Dnigma Howard’s civil rights. It also calls out the city of Chicago and the school board, alleging that officials have failed to protect students. The lawsuit reads, “The Defendant-Officers’ use of force, arrest and criminal charging of D.H. was a direct result of the City of Chicago’s failure to implement best practices for police and security officers in schools, practices that should be designed to ensure the safety of Chicago’s children in a manner that avoids criminalizing juvenile behavior and violating their civil rights.”
The lawsuit lays out six counts against the City of Chicago, the school board and Officers Johnnie Pierre and Sherry Tripp. Counts I, II, and IV address claims of Unconstitutional Seizure, Excessive Force, and Battery. Attorney Andrew Stroth claims that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment. He writes that the use of force “over a student behavioral issue” was unconstitutional and that the cops’ actions resulted in Howard’s injuries.
Counts III, V and VI addresses the City of Chicago and the Chicago Board of Education. Stroth states that officers assigned to schools require specialized training and that the Chicago Police Department “does not provide specific training for police officers assigned to schools on unique aspects that are essential to their role, most importantly alternatives to arresting students.” The lawsuit lists specific training topics that officers should be instructed on before being assigned to a school, such as “Childhood and adolescent development;” “Disability and special education issues;” and “Conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques.” The lawsuit points to a report by the City of Chicago’s Office of Inspector General that addresses training deficiencies within the department.
The lawsuit adds that Chicago Public School staffers are instructed to contact police only in the case of criminal activity. “CPS teachers should never contact CPD directly to handle a student matter, but should instead refer the student to the school principal or administrator.”
The Howard family is asking for compensatory damages as well as for the defendants to pay all attorney fees.
5. Lawsuit: The School Had a Behavioral Plan in Place For Dnigma Howard, Who ‘Has Difficulty Regulating Her Emotions’
Dnigma Howard has switched schools since the incident occurred. The federal lawsuit explains that while at Marshall High School, Howard was enrolled in an “Individual Education Program based on an emotional disability.” It explains that Howard becomes “defensive when confronted” and “has difficulty regulating her emotions.”
The school program included a Behavior Intervention Plan for when Howard would become emotional. According to the lawsuit, school staffers had previously noted that “removal from the classroom, engagement of police or security, and suspensions have not been successful in addressing D.H. behavioral issues and emotional disability.” It added that such actions had negatively impacted Howard’s performance in school.
The federal lawsuit claims that “Marshall High School staff did not properly follow the student code of conduct on January 29, 2019, to address the underlying behavioral issue.”