PALM HARBOR — Ayrillyn Pierre, 11 years old, was arrested last month and charged with simple battery after a passer-by saw her and another preteen girl fighting at a bus stop.
Ayrillyn, a sixth-grader, was handcuffed three days later at Carwise Middle School and taken to the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center, where her mother had to come pick her up.
Ayrillyn's parents are furious that a fight between two girls who were at one time friends escalated to an arrest and a criminal charge.
"I can't understand how my child became the attacker in all of this," said Aprillyn Pierre, the 11-year-old's mother. "They put handcuffs on her. This is something the parents were supposed to sit down and handle. But now my child has been treated like a criminal."
Wednesday, Ayrillyn agreed to participate in a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office diversion program. She had to admit to touching the other child. If she completes all the assigned tasks, which could include community service and writing an essay, there will be no record of the misdemeanor charge. Her file will be destroyed when she turns 18.
"I feel like I'm the one who's getting bullied," Ayrillyn said, tears coming down her face after she and her parents agreed to participate in the program. "I keep trying to explain but no one believes me."
Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Tom Nestor said the law doesn't prohibit juveniles from being arrested.
"Juveniles do commit crimes," Nestor said. "They have to be held accountable. At what age do they say they are not responsible? An 11-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong and fantasy and reality."
On Jan. 5, Ayrillyn and the other girl had a confrontation that started with name-calling on a school bus. There had been a prior incident involving name-calling and derogatory text messages, Ayrillyn said.
A Sheriff's Office report doesn't indicate who threw the first punch, but passer-by Randy Cody said he saw Ayrillyn getting the best of the other girl.
Other children were standing around them egging it on, Cody said. He broke up the fight and called the Sheriff's Office.
"It would have been irresponsible as an adult not to do so," Cody said of calling the Sheriff's Office. "I don't know either kid but it just bothered me how these kids were acting."
Sgt. Paul Monahan and Deputy Keith Dwyer arrived on the scene about 5 p.m. They interviewed the other girl, who told them that she and Ayrillyn were "ex-friends" and that the two had gotten into a physical altercation, the Sheriff's Office report said. The girl noted that she and Ayrillyn had gone trick-or-treating together.
Another juvenile at the scene was interviewed.
The other girl's mother, Mary Frodella, was called and told deputies she wanted to file criminal charges against Ayrillyn.
Deputies then knocked on the Pierres' door wanting to speak with their 11-year-old daughter.
"There were three officers and they called the other girl a victim without even having spoken a word to my daughter," Ayrillyn's mother said. "I told them that I would bring her down to the police department the next day to be interviewed or we should let the school handle it.
"But I just didn't feel comfortable because they had already made up their minds."
Two days later, Ayrillyn was called to the office at Carwise Middle and arrested. She was placed in the back of a sheriff's cruiser and taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center.
"I asked Ayrillyn if she knew why I was here," Dwyer wrote in the report. "Ayrillyn stated she wanted to speak with her mother. I asked how tall she was and she replied again that she wanted to speak with her mother."
Pierre's arrest is the second preteen handcuffing involving the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office recently. Eric Tackebury Jr., 9, of Clearwater was handcuffed Feb. 3 after he and another child got into a scuffle.
Some juvenile justice experts say arresting preteens in simple matters such as a fight where no one is seriously injured is asinine.
"Fights at the bus stop are a common event, but they are usually pushing and shoving and the next day everything is fine," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "Fights at the bus stop involving 11-year-olds are not supposed to involve the judicial system."
Cathy Corry, founder and president of Justice For Kids, an advocate for children being treated like children, agreed.
"A kid should be able to be a kid," Corry said. "A kid should be able to get in a little tussle and then work it out."