Abducted from School: Zachari

Accidental Abduction?
"A few weeks ago my son, Zachari, whom we call "Little Z," was taken from school by a complete stranger," says Latoia. "My sister, Natasha, usually picks Little Z up from school. When she got there the teacher told her that a gentleman had come to pick him up on a bicycle."


"We went riding a bicycle, and he had to pick me up and put me in the middle," says Zachari.

"The teacher didn't ask the gentleman for his name, identification or anything," Latoia laments. "She just released Little Z to him."

"I thought, what is my sister going to do?" Natasha recounts. "She just had a baby. She's depending on me to get this child, and how am I going to explain to her that he's not here? Someone has him, and I don't know where he is."

"When I received the call from my sister, I immediately panicked, and I was hysterical," says Latoia.

Zachari's father, who goes by the same name, was equally distraught. "I really freaked out, and I was, like, just really scared," he remembers. "I just started crying. I was like, oh, my God, my son's missing! What am I going to do now?"

But Zachari's grandfather, Jeff, expresses a different emotion. "I'm very P-ed off. Very P-ed off," he says. "My grandson could have ended up on a milk carton. He could have ended up in a cemetery."

Natasha continues with her account. "That day, on my way to pick up Little Z," she says, "I passed a man on a bicycle with a child on it who had on a jacket similar to my nephew's, and I thought, wow, that looks just like Little Z's jacket. I immediately flashed back " oh my God, it had to have been he who just passed me. I immediately got in my car and rushed off."

Latoia explains that her sister spotted the bicycle about three miles away from the school. She says, "She immediately swerved in the middle of the street, and jumped out and asked the gentleman, 'What are you doing with my nephew?' The man's reaction was panicky. He had just realized that he had picked up the wrong child from the school."

When Zachari arrived at the man's house a lady came out and told him he had brought home the wrong child, and he would have to take him back to the school.

"She said, 'Dang, Kenny! You've got the wrong kid!'" little Zachari recounts cheerfully.

"How could you send a man to get his grandson, and they don't know what he looks like?" Zachari's grandfather asks.

"That's very scary, that he's able to go to the school and pick up a child whom he can't identify," Latoia observes. "The principal gave her sincere apology and assured that it would not happen again, but there's no way of me really being confident because it happened to my son."

With her recovered son astride her lap, Latoia asks, "Will you ever go with a stranger again?" When the child shyly shakes his head and utters the word no, Latoia can only roll her eyes and smile.

"Well, I am so glad that this has come to a good end in that he is safe, and back and OK," says Dr. Phil. "Did you just freak?"


"I did," says Latoia. "I was hysterical. I had just gotten home Sunday from having a new baby."

Dr. Phil wonders aloud how a person could possibly pick up the wrong child.

 

"He was an older guy," says Natasha, "and once I got to him, and I asked him what was he doing with Zachari, his response was, 'I apologize. I just picked up the wrong kid.'"

"When you saw the bike, was it headed back to the school?" asks Dr. Phil.

"When I saw the bike, it didn't appear to be heading back to the school," says Natasha, "so I'm not sure if he had panicked and didn't really know what he was going to do."

"Well is it your belief that this was an accident on his part," Dr. Phil asks Latoia, "that he was, like, confused and picked up the wrong kid?"

"Yes, on his part," says Latoia. "The school said that he stated that he had a lot of grandkids, and he didn't know what they looked like or their names."

Dr. Phil suppresses a smile. "Well, I've never heard that one before," he says.

"We always think that we've prepared our children," says Dr. Phil, "but is it shocking to you that your son left with some guy he had never seen before? And when he got outside, he said, 'And by the way, we're traveling on a bike. Climb on.' And even that didn't signal him, and he just loaded up and went home."

"It's very shocking," Latoia agrees, "His little cousin usually is in school with him every day, and they leave together. She wasn't there that day because she was sick, so he stated to me that his teacher said, 'Well, this man said he's going to take you to your grandmother.'"

"So he relied on the teacher," Dr. Phil surmises. "The teacher is an authority figure and says, 'This is the person here to pick you up. Go with him,' so he complies with an instruction. But did I understand right, he said himself that when he got home this man's wife said, 'That's the wrong kid'?"

"That's correct," says Latoia. "My son said when he got to the gentleman's house he said, 'This is not my grandmother's house,' and the gentleman was like, 'Your grandmother's on the inside.' And when they got in my son said, 'Mom, she looked at me and she said, "Dang, Kenny, you have the wrong kid!"'" Latoia shakes her head with a smile.

"It's funny, because the kid's OK," Dr. Phil notes. "It would not be funny if the kid was not OK, but what a cute kid."

"I have the greatest and most tremendous respect for teachers in America, because let me tell you, we pay them so little it is absolutely unbelievable," says Dr. Phil. "So, I don't want a feeding frenzy against the schools here, but we do have to look at policy." To that end, Dr. Phil welcomes Jill Johnson, district representative for Duvall County Schools, which includes the Long Branch Elementary School in Florida, and Dr. Jim Williams, the chief officer of the superintendent's office for Long Branch Elementary School and other schools in Duvall County. "What happened in this situation?" he asks.


Jim explains that during the time when students were normally picked up after school, a paraprofessional was on duty who knew one of Zachari's relatives would be picking him up. "This gentleman rode up on a bicycle, indicated that Zachari, he was there to pick him up," he says. "It is my understanding that this gentleman has over 50 grandchildren, and [the man's grandchild] had the same jacket on that Zachari had, and so, mistakenly, he picked him up to take him home."

"Did they ask for I.D.?" asks Dr. Phil.

"They do now," Jim says. "It's policy to ask for I.D., but normally it's the same people who pick students up." He confirms that staff members have to either know the individual personally or ask for I.D., but that this person did not do that.

"Has this person been reprimanded, disciplined, fired, replaced?" asks Dr. Phil.

"Yes," says Jim. "The person has been reprimanded. The specifics of the reprimand is a personal issue, so I'm not going into that in detail, but yes, absolutely, the person has been reprimanded and their own conscience is eating them up because they realize, again, fortunately, things worked out well, but had they not, they realize just how horrible it could have been."

"There are policies and procedures that are in place. Those were in place that day, however, they weren't followed," Jill adds. "The principal has put a number of new policies in place, obviously making sure that the I.D.'s are being taken and that students are being signed out by the guardian that's on the list."

Dr. Phil turns to Jeff, Zachari's actual grandfather, and asks, "What do you think should be done here, and what did you want to say to the school?"

"Why did y'all not call the authorities?" he asks incredulously. "Y'all did not do anything. It was his aunt, his mom [who] called the authorities. The school system, they did not call the authorities at all. When were they going to call the authorities?"

"By the time we realized what had happened, he was back to school and everything had been OK," says Jim. "By the time we found out, the situation had been corrected."

Jeff asks again why the school delayed in alerting the authorities once it had been determined that Zachari was picked up by the wrong man. "I was so upset I called the superintendent's office. They gave me the complete run around for two hours. For two hours they passed me to all kinds " 'You've got the wrong department. You need to talk to this person.' I kept calling with his father; we kept calling. We didn't hear anything from the superintendent for two days. Two days. And if I seem like I'm upset, yes, I am upset!"

"And I can understand you being upset," says Jim.

"Well, Dr. Williams," Dr. Phil interjects, "I think that the points that they're making are several: One, that this person is still doing the same job without any interruption, number two, that the authorities were not immediately alerted, and number three, it seems that these people should not have been having to chase around through the system trying to find somebody to talk to. The school should have been on their doorstep talking to them instead of having to be chased down. Do you agree with that?"

Jill chimes in, "I did understand that the principal met with the family immediately after, the day after, that morning. Unfortunately, I don't know about the run-around that happened, and I do apologize for that. This is obviously a serious matter that Duvall County takes very seriously. The safety of our children is our number-one priority."

"If you're taking it so seriously, don't you think that it would be prudent to, if not fire for a serious breach of policy, to reassign this individual to not be in a position of releasing children until such a time as additional training can be done?" asks Dr. Phil.

"Well, it was a teacher's aide. We call them paraprofessionals," she says. "She's been a paraprofessional for 29 years, so she's a very respected teacher, and we took the proper reprimand following our district policy. A letter went home the day after making sure parents remember that I.D.s are taken. We've changed the location of where you pick up your kids. There have been a number of different procedures that have fallen into place after this to ensure their safety. And as I said, we're happy to have Zachari at our school. It's a safe school, and it will remain a safe school."

"All right," says Dr. Phil. "I just want to leave it with this: I am in these situations so very often and to stonewall, not talk to, or not respond to a family or leave them caught in a bureaucratic situation can create tremendous frustration, so I hope that you have an open dialogue with this family to try to avert any problems."

 

He continues, "I understand that this paraprofessional has a terrific reputation and a terrific work history across a long period of time in working with children and is very loving and caring, so I can understand that this is something that was very much out of character and not a function of just not caring." He commends Ms. Johnson and Dr. Williams for their willingness to talk openly and offers his thanks and gratitude.

"I'm glad this came to a good end," says Dr. Phil.