After a call came in about a disturbance on a bus Tuesday afternoon, Darby Borough police went into action. An officer arrived on the scene in Delaware County, did some interviews, and determined that he had probable cause to make an arrest. So he handcuffed an 11-year-old girl.
Yes, you read that correctly.
A fifth grader at Chester Community Charter School, Zakiyah is small for her age. She stands about 4-feet-5 and weighs just 55 pounds. A cellphone video taken before she was taken into custody shows her sitting on a school bus. She appears calm. Still, she was cuffed with her little wrists behind her back and placed in the back of a police van.
Zakiyah (I'm not giving out her last name) was understandably terrified and told NBC10 that she thought she would never be able to see her family again.
Her mother told me Thursday she was still trying to wrap her head around the situation.
"I never thought that I had to give my 11-year-old 'the police talk,' " said Jawania Browne, referring to warnings that African American parents have been giving their children for years about staying safe around police officers. "I was thinking more so my son, and he's only 1. But as he grows up, I was thinking that I've got to really drill it into my son – but not my daughter. But I guess none of us are exempt."
Authorities took Zakiyah to the Darby police station and placed her in a juvenile holding area. Zakiyah was presented with a non-traffic citation that alleges "defendant did, with the intent to cause public inconvenience or alarm, create a physically hazardous or offensive condition by actions which served no legitimate purpose to the actor."
Mind you, this drama started because she and a schoolmate had gotten into a fight on a school bus. I don't know what happened, and frankly I'm not all that interested. To me, what started the dispute doesn't matter. Children fight. They're kids.
I'm concerned about that little girl. She's traumatized. Her attorney, Joe Montgomery, says it was "the worst day of her life."
Zakiyah's mother says that since being taken into custody, her daughter — who already had been in counseling for emotional issues — hasn't been sleeping well and has had nightmares. This isn't how elementary-age kids are supposed to be treated.
Max Tribble, a charter school spokesman, declined to release details of the incident, citing privacy concerns. He said the school, in Delaware County's Chester Upland School District, hadn't yet been contacted by Darby police.
I also reached out to Chief Robert Smythe at home, where he was recuperating from a bad case of the flu. He said the arresting officer had merely been following established protocol.
"I understand that it sounds harsh," Smythe told me between coughs. "She was in custody for an assault of which we were processing her. There were wounds to the other child. I understand how it sounds, but that's the policy.
"She was being processed because she committed an aggressive assault against another person," Smythe continued. "We had her in custody for 57 minutes. It's not like we put her in a cell and held her for hours. … There are police policies that we try to follow. If you are in custody, you are in handcuffs. That's the policy."
As for her being detained in a juvenile holding area, he said, "She just can't walk the hallways."
Well, what about her being put in the back of a police van?
"The officer that responded, that was his vehicle for the day," Smythe said.
Yeah, tell that to her mom. Browne is understandably upset. She's keeping Zakiyah home from school for now, taking her to counseling, and also considering private school options.
"I would never have thought that they would have locked up an 11-year-old child and treated her like that," she said.