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Mother of handcuffed kindergartener sues Pinellas County School Board

Four years after a video of police handcuffing a 5-year-old St. Petersburg girl made worldwide news, her mother has filed suit against the Pinellas County School Board.

The suit accuses school officials of mishandling the situation when the girl threw a violent tantrum in class at Fairmount Park Elementary.

The girl, now 8, will need long-term therapy, says the lawsuit, filed March 12 in Pinellas circuit court by Inga Akins, 27, the girl's mother.

"As a result of this incident, (the girl) is petrified about attending school, is afraid of law enforcement officers, has been severely traumatized and suffers from fear and anxiety," the suit says. The girl "has a permanent impairment related to the situation with the police and will require continuing long-term therapy and neurodiagnostic testing."

The St. Petersburg Times is not naming the girl because of her young age.

The suit, which accuses Fairmount Park Elementary and the School Board of negligence, malicious prosecution for calling police and a civil rights violation, seeks more than $15,000 in damages. Akins has hired high-powered attorney Willie Gary.

"Obviously, we deny liability and will defend it," said School Board attorney Jim Robinson.

The city of St. Petersburg said Tuesday it has agreed to give the family $18,000 in response to their claims against the St. Petersburg Police Department.

The March 14, 2005, incident was caught on tape when the girl, who was in kindergarten, began acting out as her teacher videotaped an exercise.

The video shows the girl making a mess in the classroom, stomping on a desk and throwing punches at assistant principal Nicole Dibenedetto. The administrator repeatedly tells the girl to stop.

It also shows police officers sternly telling the girl to calm down before standing her up, putting her arms behind her back and putting on handcuffs. She screams as the tape ends.

When the video went global a few weeks later, questions of racial bias were raised. The footage showed three police officers, all white, handcuffing the girl, who is black.

Civil rights leaders Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton issued rebukes while hundreds of people e-mailed the St. Petersburg Police Department. Many were outraged by the handcuffing while others were upset by the girl's behavior and the response of her mother, who was paid by A Current Affair to tell her story.

A police investigation found race was not a factor; the lead officer, who isn't seen on the tape, was black. But the incident led the department to outline strict rules regarding the handcuffing of children under age 8.

Akins' suit against the school district accuses it of not having proper procedures in place to deal with disciplinary problems and not properly training employees to handle such cases.

"Instead of taking measures to calm (the girl) down, school officials evacuated the classroom" and left her alone with Dibenedetto, it says. That caused the girl to become "more upset because she was extremely frightened of Ms. Dibenedetto" due to an earlier incident in January. The suit does not offer details about what allegedly happened in January.

Attorney C.K. Hoffler, who is handling the case for Gary's Stuart-based law firm, said Akins would not comment.

Asked why the firm waited four years to file suit, Hoffler said, "That's a strategic issue that I can't discuss." She said the firm met several times with Pinellas district officials but could not reach an agreement.

She said the firm's claims were resolved with the St. Petersburg Police Department before a lawsuit was filed.

"We had the opportunity to do that and declined," said Robinson, the School Board attorney.

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

Mother of handcuffed kindergartener sues Pinellas County School Board 03/31/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 9:34pm]
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