The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Somerville school leaders, facing a public backlash over calling the police on a 6-year-old Black and Latino boy, have temporarily suspended two programs that bring police officers into schools.
The moratorium, approved nearly unanimously by the School Committee last week, affects the school resource officer program and a police mentoring initiative, which aims to connect every sixth-grader with a police officer.
The programs will “remain in abeyance until the School Committee asks for these programs to be reinstated,” according to the resolution. But first the School Committee would need to develop and approve a broader policy “about the role and function of police in our schools.”
Somerville is among a growing number of Massachusetts districts reexamining the involvement of police in schools amid a national reckoning over racial injustice sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last year. Debates have been percolating in such districts as Framingham, Worcester, and Northampton, where the school committee voted last year to indefinitely ban school resource officers.
Flavia Peréa, whose son was the subject of a police inquiry following an incident in his first-grade classroom with another student in 2019, called the vote a step in the right direction, but emphasized more work remains. She noted principals still have broad discretion to call in police officers unaffiliated with the two programs placed on hold.
“There is really an entrenched police culture here in Somerville and it exists without any oversight,” said Peréa. “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.”
Somerville schools reported Peréa’s son to the police and the Department of Children and Families in November 2019 after a female classmate told their teacher he had allegedly touched her inappropriately. School officials have repeatedly defended their response in conversations and written correspondence with Peréa, contending that state law requires them to report all allegations of sexual misconduct.
But Peréa contends that school officials misinterpreted the situation, overreacted, and failed to follow state guidelines.
Peréa points out that the state’s mandatory reporting requirements to DCF specifically state that school officials don’t need to report incidents involving children who are too young to be sexually aware and that children under the age of 12 in Massachusetts cannot be criminally charged under state law, raising questions about why school officials notified police.
School officials also never took any disciplinary action against her son.
For the last 18 months, Peréa has been trying to get her son’s records expunged at the Somerville Police Department, DCF, and the Middlesex district attorney’s office, an agonizing journey that was chronicled by the Globe in February.
Andre Green, chairman of the School Committee, downplayed the role the public uproar over how school officials treated Peréa’s son played in placing a moratorium on school police programs. He said the School Committee was planning to take up the issue last school year as part of its equity work, but it was put on hold because of the pandemic.
“As a Black man in America, I always have this concern” about police in schools, Green said. “All schools should periodically review the situation with police.”
Somerville community activists praised the School Committee vote.
“The national movement to remove police from schools is building momentum and we are proud that Somerville is leading the way,” said Matthew Kennedy, a member of the Defund Somerville Police Department steering committee, in a statement. “Residents are beginning to understand that you can either have cops in schools or restorative justice, but not both.”
Massachusetts districts gained latitude to curtail police presence in schools under a new state law in December that removed a seven-year-old mandate requiring districts to have at least one school resource officer.
Critics of police in schools contend the practice puts too many students on the radar of law enforcement, effectively turning schools into pipelines to prison for many disadvantaged students.
Defenders of the practice say police help create safe school climates, especially in an age of mass shootings, and help to foster positive relationships between students and police that can help reduce disciplinary issues and help solve crimes.
In the three months since Peréa went public and launched a website documenting her son’s story, many parents, advocates, and educators have galvanized around her. They have formed an informal group, Justice for Flavia, to help clear her son’s name and remove school police.
They also have uncovered some disturbing statistics. A school official told them in an e-mail, obtained by the Globe, that the school system reported six children under the age of 12 to police during the 2019-20 school year, including Peréa’s son.
In April, Justice for Flavia sent letters to Mayor Joseph Curtatone, Superintendent Mary Skipper, and the School Committee — signed by hundreds of supporters — imploring them to acknowledge the harm they inflicted on Perea’s son and his family, expunge his police file, and replace police at schools with counselors, among other requests.
Curtatone, Skipper, and Green subsequently met with the group’s leaders on May 6, but “the tone of the meeting was icy, and city and school district leaders responded to calls for record expungement and repairing the harm done with complete silence,” according to a statement from the group.
The closed-door meeting with top officials came three days after many parents, teachers, and community activists learned during a School Committee meeting that police involvement in the schools was far more pervasive than they had realized. In addition to the school resource officer and the police mentoring programs, the schools also have access to community police officers.
Sarah Phillips, a School Committee member, introduced the resolution at the May 17 meeting to pause the police programs, which technically had been on hold while school buildings were closed during the pandemic. Phillips in an e-mail to the Globe said she wanted to ensure the school system had clear parameters for the programs before resuming them and added that she became concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline while working at a minimum security court school in California.
In the statement she read at that meeting, Phillips noted the “increased police presence in schools also exacerbates students’ feeling of lack of safety and distress, especially among Black and Latino students. This is true even for students that do not interact directly with the police on their campus.”
According to state data, students of color make up 60 percent of the 4,700 students enrolled in Somerville schools, while the school department’s workforce is 80 percent white. Three-quarters of Somerville Police Department employees are white, according to a recent School Committee presentation.
Molly Fraust-Wylie, a member of Justice for Flavia’s leadership team, said that while she appreciates the School Committee heard the concerns being raised, their action falls short in one key area.
“It seems unlikely school officials will address what happened with Flavia’s son, but I do feel hopeful they will address the problems with the policies to prevent future harm to children,” said Fraust-Wylie, whose son goes to school with Peréa’s children.
Sara Gordon Halawa, a member of the Justice for Flavia leadership team, added that the School Committee’s vote “would not have been possible if not for Flavia’s courage to share her family’s story.”
James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.