Dear Mayor Joe Curtatone,
For more than a year, my family has been living in a state of continuous trauma since my son was reported to the police by Somerville school officials for “sexual assault” when he was 6. How could it be that, in a city with a progressive image that you helped champion, schools conspire with police to undermine the most basic foundations of child development, education, and human and community health? The threat this presents to the safety and well-being of our children and families of color is terrifying.
I am calling on you to act.
In June, you declared systemic racism a public safety and public health emergency, and I am challenging you to move from statements and declarations to concrete action.
What happened to my son, who is Black and Latino, is the embodiment of the school-to-prison pipeline, a racial justice crisis, and a function of systemic injustice in education that disproportionately impacts children of color. It involves a constellation of factors, including harsh discipline, policing in school, and referrals to law enforcement. Importantly, it reflects deep-seated racism and implicit bias that influence individual decisions, and therefore professional practice and policies, which go on to infect institutions and communities. This diseased system creates unsafe learning environments that undermine learning, cannot nurture children’s full potential, and funnel children of color into juvenile and criminal justice systems. My son is one casualty of such a system working as designed. You therefore now have an opportunity for bold, visionary leadership that can advance equity and racial justice by taking the following steps.
▪ Start by acknowledging the harm that was done to my son and our family, and ensure the local police record is expunged. Recognize racist policies and institutional practices that are detrimental to children and families of color in the long term, and hold the responsible Somerville school administrators accountable.
▪ Partner with community stakeholders on a citywide equity audit to gather data on local racial and health equity issues.
▪ Use this information to engage with residents to formulate community-based solutions that harness local knowledge and power to help bring justice and restorative and antiracist practices to our schools and all municipal departments. This is essential for tackling the racism, biases, cultures, and practices that have become institutionalized, allowing our schools to perpetuate injustice.
▪ Finally, your action at the local level can also help dismantle statewide policies around policing that were designed to hurt and subjugate, not to heal and liberate. In Massachusetts, lessons from this tragic incident can guide implementation of the police reform bill recently signed into law, specifically by informing development of a just, equity-centered model memorandum of understanding for school districts and police that limits police involvement in schools to public safety threats.
Through these principled actions, you can demonstrate you have skin in the game, assure residents there are accountability mechanisms in place, and show what it means to embrace the challenge of advancing equity, civil rights, and racial justice.
These concrete efforts can guide rethinking the role of police in our society and eliminate policing in our schools so they can become truly dedicated spaces of learning and inspiration. We must disavow reactive law enforcement and punishment in favor of public safety centered on partnership, trust, community empowerment, and, above all, equity and justice. And these measures would help my family and others feel better, safer, dropping our kids off at school.
The Somerville Public Schools’ actions hurt my child. My family will carry this harm for a long time. It scares me to think what more vulnerable and less-resourced children and families in our community might be experiencing, those who don’t speak English, don’t know their rights, are afraid to confront schools and police, or are fearful of losing their children if they speak up. I am privileged to have a high level of education; I know my rights, won’t hesitate to advocate for others, and I am not afraid of the police. This is my privilege, and this is how I am using it, to get justice for my son and make sure no child ever again carries such a burden. I am in it for the long haul.
Change is hard, and it takes time, but it is possible if we do the work. To which end, I make you an offer: I will work with you and our community to end the policing by school districts and referrals to law enforcement of our children in school. It will take equal measures of bravery and integrity, but I hope you can rise to the occasion.
Flavia C. Peréa is a social scientist.