Sign up to receive a newsletter for The Great Divide, an investigative series that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. And please reach out to us at email@example.com with story ideas and tips.
When Flavia Peréa’s 6-year-old son left the Albert F. Argenziano School in Somerville on Nov. 12, 2019, his behavior chart was marked green, indicating he’d had a great day. That made the disturbing calls she’d received earlier that day all the more perplexing.
The dean of students had phoned her at work to say a girl told them her son had touched her inappropriately in their first-grade classroom that morning. The dean characterized her son’s alleged conduct as sexual harassment and added, almost as an afterthought, that the school would have to report it to the state.
She mentioned nothing about notifying the police. But a while later, a Somerville detective left a message on Peréa’s voicemail.
Peréa was stunned: How could a child who’d just lost his first tooth be the subject of a police inquiry?
More than a year later, Peréa is still seeking basic information about what happened that day in the first-grade cubby area. She wants to know why school officials rushed to notify authorities, and whether racism influenced their actions: Her son is Black and Latinx; the girl is white.
“They don’t see a little boy. They see a criminal,” said Peréa, a sociology lecturer at Harvard University and director of the Mindich Program in Engaged Scholarship. “The first thing they did was call the police.”
School officials have repeatedly defended their actions to Peréa in meetings and in written communications that Peréa shared with the Globe, arguing they were following state rules. But Peréa can see no justification for involving the police. In Massachusetts, children under the age of 12 cannot be charged with a crime, according to state law.
Peréa’s quest for answers, unfolding against the backdrop of a national reckoning over racial injustice, has taken her on an unexpected odyssey into a disturbing world familiar to many older children. It is America’s school-to-prison pipeline, a term describing how schools’ discriminatory approach to discipline and close relationships with police disproportionately steer Black and Latino students toward incarceration.
Law enforcement and DCF never took action against Peréa’s son. The school never disciplined him. And he and the girl finished the year in the same class.
Yet he now has a paper trail at several powerful governmental agencies: the police department, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office, and the state Department of Children and Families, whose intake report from the school system describes the incident as “sexual assault” and her son as the “alleged perpetrator.” Police have refused to share their report with Peréa, citing a state law that limits the release of sexual assault complaints to victims and other authorized representatives.
At the same time, Peréa has received incomplete and conflicting information from the school about what happened between the children. The dean of students said her son touched the girl’s “private parts.” A school employee told DCF he touched the girl’s crotch, according to an intake report. But the classroom teacher told Peréa the girl reported that he had touched her “bum” and pointed to her rear end.
School officials declined to comment on the matter, citing student privacy laws. But a spokesperson defended the school system’s procedures for handling sexual assault allegations, saying they comply with state and federal reporting requirements, which are designed to protect “the safety of both the victims of alleged serious acts, such as physical or sexual assault, as well as the alleged youth perpetrators, who may themselves be victims in other settings.”
“We are not aware of a recent case from the Somerville Public Schools that was referred to local law enforcement or DCF that has resulted in a determination that SPS should not have reported the incident,” said Susana Hernandez Morgan, a school system spokesperson, in a statement, emphasizing the reporting is done without bias and is not discretionary.
She added the school system, which is led by Superintendent Mary Skipper, is committed to addressing factors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, including enrolling white students disproportionately to challenging courses and children of color to special education services.
But legal experts and social justice advocates say school employees are not required by law to alert DCF about inappropriate touching among very young children — and they certainly shouldn’t be contacting police.
“I find it extremely disturbing that a touch would escalate into a characterization of abuse and criminalized behavior. I don’t understand what the school was thinking,” said Lisa Thurau, founder and executive director of Strategies for Youth, a Cambridge nonprofit that trains law enforcement agencies on how to interact with young children. “Even if they were trying to protect the girl and their own legal exposure, there seems like there are a half dozen other ways to handle this situation that would have been less traumatizing for both students and their families.”
She said administrators could have, for instance, relied on counseling instead of contacting outside agencies.
That seems to comport with the state’s mandated reporting rules, which require school employees to report cases of suspected child abuse by caregivers to DCF. The rules, however, don’t obligate them to notify DCF about incidents between children who are too young to be sexually aware.
“Sexual curiosity and behaviors that are developmentally appropriate for children six years old or younger do not qualify as sexual abuse,” the Child Advocacy Center at the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office states in its online training materials for mandated reporters, which Somerville schools rely on.
The guidance is based, in part, on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which classifies touching a peer’s genitals as a “less common normal behavior” for children 6 years old or younger.
School employees should carefully evaluate incidents between young children, said Jacqueline Reis, a state education spokesperson, and seek guidance from their school’s “social worker, nurse, or legal counsel, as well as DCF.”
When officials determine an incident between students qualifies as abuse, the state education department and DCF, in a joint advisory issued over a decade ago, encourage school employees to report it to DCF. In the case of Peréa’s son, DCF quickly screened out the complaint because her son was so young and not a caregiver and automatically referred it to the Middlesex District Attorney for further review. (Peréa said the DA never talked with her or her son, and told her attorney they quickly closed the case because of her son’s age.)
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Somerville’s decision to involve DCF and police in Peréa’s son’s case is “precisely the recipe that fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“These kinds of interactions are fostering the deeply racialized inequalities in the way students are disciplined and adjudicated,” he said.
Bringing in law enforcement could have had other implications for Peréa’s son. A police detective warned Peréa the report would wind up in a statewide law enforcement database, Peréa said. It took her more than six months, with help from the state Attorney General’s Office, to determine that it hadn’t.
As unusual as Peréa’s son’s case might sound, it is eerily similar to one in Brockton in 2006 that also raised questions of racial discrimination. An elementary school principal suspended a 6-year-old Black boy for three days for alleged sexual harassment after a classmate accused him of slipping his fingers slightly into the back of her pants.
Although the superintendent apologized a week later, the city eventually paid a hefty sum to settle the case with the family and a judge ordered the police, DCF, and the district attorney to destroy their records on the case.
Peréa is determined to have all her son’s records expunged, too, so he can truly have a clean slate.
In a liberal community like Somerville, where city officials refused to take down a Black Lives Matter banner despite pressure from its own police union, Peréa never imagined her son would encounter this sort of treatment, especially at such a young age.
It has been heart-wrenching for her to hear school officials describe her son, who never had any discipline problems, as some kind of sex offender. Her son loves drawing pictures of robots and reading books about dinosaurs, science, and the sea. And he’s always humming a little tune, as if, his mother said, he has a soundtrack in his head.
“What happened to my son is an act of violence,” she wrote on a website she launched, Architecture of Injustice in School, to draw attention to his case and the school-to-prison pipeline. “It is part of a long history of false allegations against Black and Brown men and boys sexually assaulting white girls and women.”
In digging into the school-to-prison pipeline, Peréa discovered that Somerville schools mirror others nationwide: They seem to treat Black and Latino students differently when they get into trouble. During the 2018-19 school year when the incident involving Peréa’s son occurred, Somerville schools punished Black students nearly four times more often than white students and disciplined Latino students two times more often than their white peers.
Like most Massachusetts communities, Somerville also operates under a memorandum of understanding with local police, specifying their involvement in schools and with misbehaving students. Some community members believe the agreement enables police to step into non-criminal minor infractions — an assertion school officials and police dispute — and are pushing to have it changed.
Acting Somerville Police Chief Charlie Femino disagreed that his department has any role in fostering a school-to-prison pipeline. “Officers are trained to ... refer to social service, mental health, recovery and other services wherever appropriate to avoid unnecessary arrests and criminalization, especially of persons in need,” he said in a statement.
In raising her concern that her son was treated unfairly, Peréa said she repeatedly encountered defensiveness from school officials who didn’t seem to grasp the potential implications of their actions and tried brushing it off.
The school’s principal told Peréa in a meeting one week after the incident that her son “didn’t do anything wrong” as she explained why the school never disciplined him.
In a letter to Peréa’s attorney, Peter Hahn, the school system’s legal counsel, Rosann DiPietro, said that school officials merely asked the police department’s school liaison to review the matter, not to charge the boy. She also said school officials never characterized the incident as sexual abuse or her son as an abuser when notifying DCF, even though the welfare agency’s report indicated otherwise.
“The district disputes your assertion that a massive mistake was made,” DiPietro wrote.
And when Peréa asked the School Committee for help, Carrie Normand, then chairperson, rejected Peréa’s request for an independent investigation and an overhaul of school policies.
“We believe the matter has been addressed in school and that the children have put it behind them,” Normand wrote in a letter to Peréa.
She added that the DCF notification would not result in that agency tracking her son — unless DCF received another report about him.
For Peréa, this was cold comfort. If Somerville officials overreacted once, would they do it again?
“It’s been utterly impossible to hold anyone accountable,” Peréa said. “It’s not just a leadership failure; it’s a failure of public institutions.”