By Dave Savini, Chris Hacker, Michele Youngerman
CHICAGO (WBBM) — In January 2019, a cell phone video from inside Marshall High School on Chicago’s West Side was posted to Facebook. It shows a student, then-16-year-old Dnigma Howard, at the bottom of a staircase, and two Chicago Police officers trying to handcuff her. One of the officers fires his Taser at Dnigma as she’s on the ground.
Now, more than two years and a $300,000 settlement with the school district later, many Chicago schools have opted to remove police from their hallways. At the same time, newly released body camera video sheds light on what happened to Dnigma, and data from the US Department of Education shows some schools send huge numbers of their students like her to the police.
It all started at about 9:45 a.m. on January 29, 2019. Dnigma, then a junior, can be seen on the body camera video in a hallway as an officer approaches her. It’s all because of a seemingly ordinary disciplinary matter: having her phone out during school. But things quickly escalated.
“It caught me off guard at first,” Dnigma said. “[The officer] was like, ‘you either go to in school suspension or you leave,’ and I walked away.”
Then, Dnigma said, the officer grabbed her and pushed her down the stairs. The video shows Dnigma tumbling down the staircase as a second officer jumps in. She’s then dragged down the next flight of stairs.
“I was just thinking, like, ‘defend yourself, defend yourself, just make sure that you don’t get hurt, make sure that you come out alive,” Dnigma said.
Then came the Taser. The officer fired it once, then a second time.
“It’s not really a feeling you can describe,” Dnigma said. “It was painful. Mentally, emotionally, physically. It was embarrassing for me.”
In just a few minutes, Dnigma went from being a high school student to an accused criminal charged with multiple felonies.
Dnigma’s dad, Laurentio Howard, arrived as the whole event unfolded. He’d been called to the school to bring Dnigma home, but before he could get to her, he watched, helpless, as the officers dragged his daughter down the stairs and Tasered her into submission.
“I knew if I jumped in, something could tragically happen to me, or to her,” Laurentio said.
What happened to Dnigma was just one of thousands of interactions between Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students and police each year. Most don’t result in Tasers, viral videos or six-figure lawsuit settlements. But their impact is felt by many children across the district, and, at some schools, far more often than at others.
CBS 2 looked at discipline data CPS sent to the US Department of Education for the 2017-2018 school year — the most recent on file. The data shows more than 7,700 CPS students were referred to law enforcement that year.
That’s about three percent of students district-wide. But some of the 457 CPS schools operating that year referred students at vastly higher rates.
At Marshall High School, where Dnigma was tased and thrown down the stairs in 2019, more than four in 10 students were referred to police that year — the second-highest rate of referrals to police of any CPS school, and more than 14 times the rate of the district overall, the data shows.
Marshall is just one of 26 CPS schools that referred students to police at three times or more than the district average. Those 26 schools, which together enrolled just 3 percent of the total student population that year, referred more than 1,200 students to police — 16 percent of all students referred district-wide, CBS 2’s analysis showed.
For students like Dnigma with an individualized education plan (IEP) — a legal document that lays out the special education a student with disabilities needs — the rate of referrals to police is even higher. District-wide, it’s more than double the rate for students without disabilities, according to the data.
Marshall High School had 95 students with IEPs during the 2017-2018 school year. 44 of them were referred to police.
CPS reports its own similar data on its website. But the data the district makes available to the public shows far fewer referrals to police. According to CPS, just 2,009 students were sent to the police during the 2017-2018 school year — more than 5,500 fewer students than they reported to the federal government.
CBS 2 reached out to CPS about this discrepancy more than two weeks before this story aired. At the time of publication, the district hadn’t provided an explanation.
Laurentio said he feels school staff are too quick to use police for what should be considered code of conduct or disciplinary matters. If not properly trained, he said, the officers can make matters worse, escalating what should be relatively minor incidents into life-altering traumatic events and serious criminal charges.
For Dnigma, the fact that her school called police meant paramedics had to be called to remove the Taser wires and probes still embedded in her body. She was taken away in an ambulance and was charged with two counts of felony aggravated battery of a police officer.
“Police in schools leads to the criminalization of Black and brown students and is a pipeline to the criminal justice system,” said Andrew M. Stroth, Dnigma’s attorney. He sued CPS and the Chicago Police Department on her behalf.
Stroth said the two police officers, Johnnie Pierre and Sherry Tripp, lied in their reports, falsely claiming Dnigma started the altercation. He says they’re the ones who should’ve been charged.
“The police beat her, they threw her down the stairs,” Stroth said. “And then, they turned to the dad and said, ‘your daughter is going to jail.’ And on top of that, these officers falsified official reports that completely contradict the objective video evidence.”
Pierre and Tripp were removed from the school and disciplined after surveillance camera video of the incident was finally released in April 2019. Pierre was given a 120 day suspension for grabbing Dnigma, dragging her down the stairs and stepping on her. Tripp was suspended for 2 days for failing to activate her body camera.
While the Chicago Police Department’s accountability office, COPA acknowledged the officers initiated physical contact with Dnigma, neither officer was disciplined for the inaccurate information in the police report, which claimed she started the altercation. In its investigation, the COPA said they were unable to determine whether the officers gave false testimony to the third officer who filled out the report, or whether that officer misinterpreted what Pierre and Tripp told him.
Dnigma said the worst part about what happened was that no one believed her. If it weren’t for the video, she said, she could be in prison today.
“My own dad didn’t even believe me,” Dnigma said. “He thought I started the situation. The hardest part was everybody thinking a different story.”
What happened to Dnigma ultimately led to dozens of police officers being removed from schools. While Dnigma said that’s good progress, she also said it shouldn’t have taken this long for that to happen. Instead, she said the district should “keep police out of the schools, and have more counselors.”
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