In a lawsuit that’s drawn national attention and statements to the media, celebrity attorney Ben Crump questions the actions of Key West police, teachers and principals in the 2018 arrest of an 8-year-old boy who reportedly punched and threatened a teacher while at school in December 2018.
“This is a heartbreaking example of how our educational and policing systems train children to be criminals by treating them like criminals – if convicted, the child in this case would have been a convicted felon at eight years old,” Crump said in a prepared statement.” This little boy was failed by everyone who played a part in this horrific incident.”
Crump’s co-counsel, attorney Devon Jacob, said, “As a former police officer, I am appalled by the conduct of these officers. Their actions and treatment of this young boy, aside from being inappropriate, deviate from widely accepted police procedures regarding the treatment of minors and disabled persons.”
Crump filed suit on Aug. 11 against the city of Key West police department, the Monroe County School District and individual officers, teachers and principals. Crump represents the child’s mother, Bianca Di Gennaro. The attorney did not answer questions that Keys Weekly submitted to his law firm.
The lawsuit does not mention what the Keys Weekly has confirmed through multiple sources — that the boy’s father, Herschell Major, had asked for his son to be arrested to teach him a lesson following previous violent outbursts at both Gerald Adams Elementary and a different school he had previously attended.
The lawsuit — and the police report — both state that the boy’s father, Herschell Major, was contacted by the school and was present during the boy’s arrest, in keeping with school district policies. The lawsuit also acknowledges that the police action was taken to teach the boy a lesson.
“…in an attempt to teach (the boy) a lesson, despite knowing that (he) was not ‘going to jail’ (in the common understanding of that statement), (police officers) Waite, Sims, and Malgrat, intentionally led (the child) to believe that he was going to jail,” the lawsuit states.
Keys Weekly submitted a public records request to the school district seeking confirmation that the father had requested that police intervene for the child’s arrest, but was told by school district officials, “All documents in the district’s possession that would be responsive to this request are exempt from public disclosure” under a provision of open records law that exempts some records while a legal case is ongoing.
The Keys Weekly also requested of the school district a “record of disciplinary actions taken against the child either at Gerald Adams or any other district school, with the understanding that the child’s name will be redacted.”
The school district is not legally allowed to provide such information. School officials replied, “The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)…prohibits the disclosure of these records unless the identity of the student would not be discernible….”
The boy’s grandmother, Margitta Di Gennaro confirmed the child’s prior behavior problems. “He did have earlier behavioral problems, but that was before he was medically and psychologically evaluated and put on medication,” she said.
Lawsuit seeks payment, admission and apology
The federal lawsuit states that the boy has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Oppositional Defiance Disorder and Adjustment Disorder. It claims the police and school district traumatized the boy and violated his civil rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act when they tried to handcuff him with cuffs that were too big for his wrists, then placed him in a police car and showed him the inside of a jail cell.
“As a direct result of the Defendants’ conduct, (the boy) suffered a psychological injury that manifested itself physically, i.e., loss of breath, hives, stomach aches, headaches, insomnia, nightmares, and refusal to sleep alone,” states the lawsuit, which also claims the psychological injuries could be permanent.
The lawsuit seeks: a declaratory judgment stating the defendants’ conduct violated the child’s constitutional rights. It also seeks “compensatory damages: Including, but not limited to, the monetary value associated with the following: violations of legal rights, emotional distress, emotional injury, loss of liberty, embarrassment, and loss of reputation; punitive damages as permitted by law; attorney’s fees and costs… and other financial or equitable relief that the court deems reasonable and just.”
Finally, the lawsuit seeks “an in-person oral apology,” and “a written admission and apology on the school district’s and city’s official letterhead.”
Court of public opinion
Police and school district officials are prohibited by their respective attorneys from commenting on pending litigation, and Crump has instructed his client, Di Gennaro, to stop speaking about the case, her mother told Keys Weekly on Saturday, Aug. 15.
“Crump likes to say…that he argues cases twice: first and relentlessly ‘in the court of public opinion,’ then in civil court, where jury selection is paramount,” the Washington Post reported in a June 19 profile of attorney Crump.
Crump has represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery, who were the victims of racially motivated murders, and the family of George Floyd, the black man murdered on May 25 by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“Crump has won more than 200 police-violence cases, his firm earning a third of each settlement,” states the Washington Post article.
Local public opinion
Social media users worldwide — and in the Florida Keys — have had plenty to say about the Key West lawsuit, the incident and the people involved. Hundreds of users have written in support of the boy and his mother and have joined Crump in criticizing the actions taken by police and educators against the special-needs student, based on a police video that shows the arrest.
The video Crump has circulated from a police officer’s body camera shows an officer attempting to handcuff the boy with cuffs too large for his wrists.
In the video, Key West police are seen and heard speaking to the boy, saying, “You understand this is very serious, OK? And, I hate that you put me in this position that I have to do this. OK? All right? The thing about it is, you made a mistake; now it is time to learn from it and grow from it. Right? Not repeat the same mistake again. Ok? All right.”
As the online conversation about the case continued, comments in support of the local school district and law enforcement surfaced on Florida Keys-based social media pages, along with questions about the mother’s motivation in filing the lawsuit.
Additional details emerge
“I also heard that Herschell (the boy’s father) asked for the child to be arrested, but if he did make a request like that, why are the police taking orders from a father when the school should be handling the situation? It doesn’t help to scare a child like that,” said Margitta Di Gennaro, the boy’s grandmother and plaintiff Bianca Di Gennaro’s mother. “My husband and I have nothing but respect and admiration for the police and sheriff’s office, but this unfortunate incident was mishandled by the school and should never have escalated to the arrest of a child.”
Plaintiff Bianca Di Gennaro’s father is former Monroe County Commissioner Mario Di Gennaro, who served from 2005 to 2010 and echoed his wife’s support for the police and sheriff’s office.
“We do not want this to come off as being part of the anti-police movement. I’m the most pro-police guy there is, and have nothing but respect for our law enforcement officers,” Mario Di Gennaro said.
He and his wife also dismissed online claims that their daughter filed the lawsuit solely in pursuit of a financial settlement from the city’s police department, the Monroe County School District and individual officers and educators. “She simply wanted to be sure her son didn’t have a criminal record at age 8 and she doesn’t want this to happen to any other child,” Mario Di Gennaro said.
The Monroe County State Attorney’s office ultimately dismissed the case and the boy wasn’t charged.
Special needs prompt behavior issues
”He’s a child who can’t sit still and doesn’t like to be touched, much like many autistic children. The teachers should have known that,” Margitta Di Gennaro said.
The boy’s grandmother emphasized that from what she has heard, the child did not use his “hands, fists and feet” to combat a teacher, as the police report states.
“Having had problems in school from early on, Bianca realized there was something wrong with her son and had repeatedly asked the school to have him tested,” Margitta Di Gennaro said. “It took until third grade to finally have him evaluated, and even longer to be put on medication.”
Since the incident…
Margitta Di Gennaro has counseled her daughter to stop reading social media posts. While many of them support the lawsuit, defend the child’s rights and criticize the police and school officials’ actions, local Facebook users have criticized his mother personally.
“I told her, ‘What did you expect, Bianca, when you did this? And this is only the beginning. I told her, ‘Stay away from Facebook,’” Margitta Di Gennaro said. “This child has been through plenty in his life, and didn’t need to be scared by the police. This was an unfortunate situation that was mishandled by the school.”
Margitta Di Gennaro said her daughter removed her son from Gerald Adams immediately following the incident. He went to live with his other grandparents to attend school in Fort Lauderdale.
“But he wanted to come back home, so she’s home-schooling him now and he’s on medication,” Margitta Di Gennaro said.
“Bianca is different from the other mothers. She looks different, dresses differently, speaks differently and isn’t a favorite among the teachers and staff at school,” her mother said. “But a child shouldn’t be punished for the actions of his parents.”
“Her father and I haven’t approved of all her choices, but she’s now a bail bondsman and will hopefully have a different life,” her mother said.
The boy’s father, Herschell Major, has worked as a power lineman at Keys Energy Services for the past 15 years. He is no longer in a romantic relationship with Di Gennaro and has not been named as a plaintiff or defendant in the lawsuit. Major could not be reached for comment. Phone calls to Major were not returned and an email was unanswered.
Court records document a series of legal disputes between Di Gennaro and Major, but those were litigated in family court, so the documents are sealed.
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