A Somerville mother who has been trying to clear her young son’s name after the Somerville school district called the police on him when he was 6 has secured a major victory: The state Department of Children and Families has informed her attorney the agency is expunging his records.
But Flavia Peréa still has a long way to go to achieve full justice for her son, as Somerville officials continue to fight to keep the boy’s police report secret. On Wednesday, the city filed a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court against the state’s Supervisor of Public Records in an effort to keep the documents private.
The two dramatically different responses are generating mixed feelings for Peréa and her husband, Sean Roberson.
Their son’s case, which was based on unsubstantiated allegations that he inappropriately touched a female classmate in their first-grade classroom in November 2019, has raised questions about police involvement in schools and whether educators are too quick to notify them about cases involving students of color. Peréa’s son is Black and Latino; his classmate was white.
Peréa, whose quest for justice was chronicled by the Globe in February, said she is thrilled that DCF is expunging its records. “It’s confirmation my son’s case was mishandled by the school and it shouldn’t have been reported to child welfare,” she said.
But she is frustrated that the city has filed a lawsuit, which she learned from WBUR on Thursday.
“They must be hiding something if they are this adamant about keeping it secret,” she said.
In a lawsuit filed in Middlesex Superior Court on Wednesday against the state, Somerville argued the state’s Supervisor of Public Records made a ruling based on “an error of law” and it was “in excess of the statutory authority of the agency.” The city is asking the court to nullify the decision.
The city also contends that the supervisor’s June 22 decision was “made upon unlawful procedure” because after the city asked her to reconsider she sent her rejection by e-mail to the general inbox of the city’s public records office rather than directly to the city’s attorney’s e-mail account.
Consequently, the city says it did not learn of the rejection until Aug. 30, after Peréa told the Supervisor of Public Records the city hadn’t complied with the state order yet. The order at minimum merely directed Somerville to provide better explanations for why it was withholding the police report.
A Somerville city spokeswoman declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Supervisor of Records, who also declined to comment on the case, said only occasionally does a municipality contest a decision in court. This summer, for instance, the Malden school system filed a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court against the agency over a public records request it says involves culling through 80,000 e-mails.
Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director for Lawyers for Civil Rights, said it was wrong for Somerville to withhold the police report from the boy’s family. He characterized the case as a prime example of the school-to-prison pipeline, in which schools tend to discipline Black and Latino students at higher rates than their peers and call in the police.
“Far too often, children of color are subject to significant disparities along racial lines in police investigations,” he said. “If police records are available, they should be released to the family to help assess whether school and law enforcement officials acted appropriately. Transparency is critical to avoid the over-criminalization of children of color and to foster public trust in school and police officials.”
Somerville 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, arguing the incident does not constitute sexual misconduct because her son was too young to be sexually aware.
Peréa has pointed out that the state’s mandatory reporting requirements to DCF specifically state 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.
Peréa has filed two requests through an attorney to obtain the police report. In rejecting the first request in December 2019, police said state law only allowed them to release it to the victim. The police relied on that basis and other exemptions in rejecting the family’s second request earlier this year.
But in June, after Peréa filed an appeal with the state Supervisor of Public Records, that office determined the Police Department applied the exemptions too broadly.
“While portions of the responsive incident report may fall under Exemption (c), it is uncertain how the record can be withheld in its entirety. The city must explain whether segregated portions of the report can be provided,” the supervisor wrote. “Any non-exempt, segregable portion of a public record is subject to mandatory disclosure.”
Many Somerville residents have rallied around Peréa and her family, forming a group called Justice for Flavia. This spring, the Somerville School Committee, under pressure from the group and other residents, temporarily suspended two programs that bring police officers into schools.
As Peréa continues her fight, she and her husband have decided to move out of state to raise their two children, although they will keep their home in Somerville. Peréa said she was fearful the Somerville schools would retaliate against her children for pushing to clear her son’s name.
“Basically, the city wants to go to court because they want to treat my son, now a third-grader, like a criminal,” she said. “I think for the rest of my life I will be scared of school to a certain degree.”