The Assault of Dnigma Howard is What Happens When Schools Criminalize Teen Behavior

Focused pupil working at her desk in a classroom

Focused pupil working at her desk in a classroomEarlier this year, school police in a Chicago tasered, punched, and dragged 16-year-old Dnigma Howard–a Black girl with disabilities—down the stairs. While the police officers were eventually removed from the school, Dnigma initially faced felony charges for defending herself—charges dropped shortly before the release of a video that showed that the officers lied about Dnigma becoming physically violent before the assault. But what egregious act did Dnigma commit in the first place to warrant her being escorted out of class, school, and eventually tasered and beaten by cops in the first place?
She had her cell phone out in class.
Having a cell phone out is normal teenage—and human—behavior. It could easily have been addressed by teachers and school staff. As a teacher, I handled kids having their cell phones in class on a regular basis. First, I decided whether the cell phone was actually causing a distraction. If it was, I would hold onto it for the day in my locked desk and give it back when it was time to leave. If a student needed to make a call, I would let them do so in the front office. I never had any problems—kids felt their needs were respected, and distractions in the classroom were addressed.
That didn’t happen in Dnigma Howard’s school. Like so many schools across the country, they decided to turn to law enforcement for a minor disciplinary infraction. Despite their title, so-called “School Resource Officers” in most cases are actually sworn law enforcement officers. They carry weapons. They have arrest powers. Too often, their job is not to protect students or be resources, but to treat students like criminals in their own schools for behaviors that used to be handled appropriately by teachers.
What’s all the more maddening about Dnigma’s case is that as a student with a disability and Individualized Education Program (IEP), she was entitled—by law—to see a counselor and the school was required to follow a specific behavior intervention plan. Instead of being supported as required by law, she was criminalized and assaulted.
As much as I wish to I could say incidents like Dnigma’s are rare, I’ve seen this pattern firsthand as an advocate for the School Discipline Advocacy Service in Philadelphia. I recall a case in which I acted as an advocate for a student who was arrested for trying to call her mother during a discipline-related discussion with the principal. The reason for the discussion and later police involvement? She had her jacket on and was eating in homeroom. She was hungry and cold. The principal asked that she be charged with a felony. The judge rightfully decided to dismiss the charge, but the experience of having been taken out of school in handcuffs and sitting in the police station for hours—followed by a court hearing—can never be taken back.
This is an unacceptable reality that happens too often, in schools across the country. Dnigma and the student I advocated for shouldn’t have had to deal with the experience of being arrested and charged, even if the charges were later dropped. Another sad reality is that Dnigma and my client were somewhat “lucky” in that they were able to get their charges dropped and disciplinary records cleared.
Take the incident that happened at Hazleton Area High School in Pennsylvania the day right after Dnigma’s assault. In that incident, school police slammed a 15-year-old Black girl into a table while pulling her hair in an attempt to violently restrain her. Not only were the officers allowed to remain in the school, but four students involved were expelled.
Criminalizing students in schools even extends to interactions that don’t involve police, showing this is a broader school culture problem that must be addressed. Not long ago, I wrote about how four Black and Latina middle school girls were strip-searched for being “giddy” in Binghamton, New York. When schools view Black and Brown girls as less than fully human, they treat girls as school property—without dignity or respect. If she is not a seen as a person worthy of dignity and respect, if she is seen as a mere extension of the school, the use of objectively excessive force, of invasive searches, becomes justified. The entire incident then becomes, somehow, her fault. Her fault for defending herself, or for trying to preserve her bodily integrity. Her fault for getting in trouble in the first place. Her fault for having a disability.
So, she gets suspended. She gets expelled. She gets beaten. She gets arrested. She gets charged. From Chicago to Binghamton to Hazleton, these stories show that for many Black and Brown girls, police in schools means the constant threat of physical punishment and scrutiny. This is as far from student safety as you can get.
In leaving discipline to police officers, schools abdicate their duties to actually engage students in teaching appropriate behavior. School discipline should be addressed in a meaningful way that holds students accountable and restores them to the school environment with as little impact on their education as possible. And part of appropriate discipline requires that schools do not punish students for minor infractions that tend to be handled in biased, racist ways that do nothing but hurt and traumatize girls. By involving school police, discipline unnecessarily involves the juvenile justice system and communicates to Black girls that they are just problems to be removed, rather than individuals to be respected and educated.
We fail girls, and all students, every day that we have police in our schools to answer behavioral issues instead of teachers and mental health professionals trained in youth behavior, disability, and trauma. Girls like Dnigma deserve support, not policing—counselors, not cops. They deserve a school culture that sees them as fully human individuals deserving of respect. They deserve so much more.