A Massachusetts school board voted last week to temporarily halt two programs that brought police officers into schools after the school district called police on a 6-year-old Black and Latino student and accused him of sexually assaulting a white girl. Flavia Peréa, the child’s mother, told The Boston Globe her child and another student at the Argenziano School were targets of a police probe in Somerville Public Schools when the female student told their teacher that Peréa’s son had touched her inappropriately in 2019. The children were in first grade at the time. Peréa, a social studies lecturer at Harvard College, said school officials misinterpreted the actions of her 6-year-old and went beyond state guidelines in the process, which dictate that the requirement of schools to report such incidents to the Department of Children and Families doesn't apply to students under 12 years old who are too young to be sexually aware.
“They don’t see a little boy,” Peréa told the Globe in February. “They see a criminal. The first thing they did was call the police.”
The school board, dubbed the School Committee in Somerville, determined that the policing programs—a mentoring effort to match each sixth-grader with a cop and the school resource officer program—will “remain in abeyance until the School Committee asks for these programs to be reinstated,” according to a resolution the Globe obtained. Before school officials consider reinstatement, the committee would need to approve overarching policy “about the role and function of police in our schools.” Andre Green, chairman of the School Committee, told The Boston Globe the School Committee planned to address the issue last year but stalled those plans due to the coronavirus pandemic. “As a Black man in America, I always have this concern” about police in schools, Green told the newspaper. “All schools should periodically review the situation with police.”
In Peréa’s recent interview with the Globe, the mother described a police culture that criminalizes children and a school district that’s been all too willing to comply even when it doesn’t take disciplinary action against the child in question, which was the case for her son. “There is really an entrenched police culture here in Somerville and it exists without any oversight,” Peréa said. “The police are clearly involved with schools for things that are not a public emergency. It’s a mess. You have principals calling the police on little kids and they don’t realize the rat nest parents have to go through to get rid of these records.”
Peréa has worked for 18 months to get her child's record expunged, she told the Globe. “What happened to my son is an act of violence,” she penned on a website she created, Architecture of Injustice in School. “It is part of a long history of false allegations against Black and Brown men and boys sexually assaulting white girls and women.”
She added on the site: “I am making this painful and traumatizing experience public to make visible how the school-to-prison pipeline is set in motion in early childhood. To uncover how schools and police work together- in ways that are hidden and go beyond uniformed police officers in high schools. My intent is to show the institutionalization of injustice, how it operates and inflicts harm by design, and to illustrate the architecture of systemic racial injustice in our schools and communities, created and sustained by our civic institutions, including the ones to whom we entrust the most precious thing- our children.”
What happened in Peréa’s own words:
On Tuesday, November 12, 2019, my six-year-old son was in the cubby area of his first-grade classroom at the Argenziano School in Somerville, MA. He was putting away his things with a classmate soon after school drop-off. The cubby area is in an enclosed and separate space within the classroom, effectively a small room without a door. The children were alone in the cubbies.
My son, J, was good friends with this classmate, a girl he frequently played with. They were friends who had been in class together since Kindergarten. They liked to chase each other in the playground. They were happy to see each other in the morning and would often walk into the building together. They gave each other hugs, would hold hands, draw pictures and write notes to each other. It was very sweet.
As is often the case with very young children, J and his friend were fooling around that morning in the cubby area. The children were unsupervised. As the teacher herself later told me when I asked her, specifically, what happened, the teacher stated my son’s friend said “[J] touched my bum” and pointed to her rear-end. The first time I was contacted by school administration I was told J “touched” the girl on her “private parts.” The language used to describe what allegedly happened changed from that point and more serious language was used. No one saw what happened. My son is Black and Latino, the girl is white.
Should an adult have asked the children what happened, or explained to J to keep his hands to himself? That would seem reasonable given this is what you call a teaching moment.
Do young children often need to be told to keep their hands to themselves? Yes. Young children are naturally curious about bodies, they think butts are funny, and are often silly about private parts.
Is this kind of behavior developmentally appropriate? Yes. This is described in this 2009 clinical report
in the journal Pediatrics.
Was this sexual harassment? Sexual abuse? Sexual assault?
Was it criminal?
According to the school and law enforcement, who relied on reporting by the school, it was. These are the terms that have been used to describe my son and frame him as a potential perpetrator, at the age of 6.
Sean Roberson, the child’s father, had to stop his voice from quivering when describing what happened in an interview with ABC-affiliated WCVB in February. "He had absolutely no idea that anything had happened, or that anything was wrong,” Roberson said of his son.
The state of Massachusetts raised the criminal age of liability, the point at which a child can be prosecuted in juvenile court, from 7 years old to 12 years old in April 2018. "There’s an indisputable link between the age in which a child enters our criminal justice system and the likelihood of a child remaining in the system throughout their life," House Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Claire Cronin told WBUR radio in 2018. "So we’ve taken so many steps that will slow down that trajectory, and I think we’ll see on that end very, very big gains.”
The National Center for Juvenile Justice found in 2018 that 32 states had no minimum age at which a minor's actions can be considered criminal. North Carolina had the lowest age of criminal responsibility at just 5 years old. The organization that tracks policy changes related to juvenile justice wrote on its website: “States must address boundaries of childhood and adulthood in the context of addressing criminal behavior. These boundaries change as public opinion about youth crime shifts. In the 1990s juvenile violence increased to historic levels. The rise in violence by juveniles changed public opinion and led to changes in state laws to make it easier for more juveniles to be prosecuted as adults. Fast-forward 20 years and juvenile crime is at an historical low and some states have changed laws in the other direction. The pace of change to restore the boundaries of juvenile justice is much slower.”