November 12, 2019 was a Tuesday. It was chilly in Somerville; later that evening it would snow lightly as a storm moved in from the north. Sean Roberson began his morning by walking his six-year-old son to the Albert F. Argenziano School, one of Somerville’s public elementary schools, where he was enrolled as a first-grader.
To protect his privacy, Roberson and his wife, Flavia C. Peréa, a Sociology lecturer at Harvard, publicly refer to their son only by the initial ‘J’. In one of the few pictures they’ve posted of him online, he has a head of curly black hair and smooth brown skin; he’s turned his face from the camera to focus on digging into the soil with a small gardening fork. Roberson describes him as playful and warm. “He’s into Transformers and Pokémon cards and Beyblades,” he says. “Sometimes he’ll come up to you and want a big hug … You know, just a normal kid.”
Roberson left J at the Argenziano School that morning without much thought. J liked first grade — his color-coded daily behavior chart from that month was mostly shaded in green, meaning he had been having pretty good days.
Peréa, meanwhile, had headed to work. A few hours later, around noon, she received a call at her desk from Argenziano’s Dean of Students, Karen Grenier-Mernin. J had touched another student on her “private parts,” the dean said. The incident wasn’t observed by a teacher, and the details Grenier-Mernin relayed to Peréa were vague, but the school was treating it as sexual harassment — as such, they’d have to report it to the state of Massachusetts.
Peréa was stunned. On a website titled “Architecture of Injustice” where she’s recorded most of the chronological information around this event, she says that when she asked for the school’s definition of sexual harassment — or how a six-year-old would ever be able to fulfill such a definition — Grenier-Mernin seemed to be unable to find it. The school still hasn’t provided Peréa with a definition, she says. When Peréa pressed Grenier-Mernin further, she says Grenier-Mernin told her that “this is what [the school] told me to do.”
She immediately called Roberson; he needed to pick J up. It wasn’t safe, she thought. Two hours later, she received a voicemail from the police, which she recorded. “Hi, this message is for Flavia,” it begins. “This is Detective Natacha Montina-Garcia from Somerville Police calling you and letting you know that I did receive a call from your son’s school today… When you get this message, give me a call back.” The call contained no further details.
Peréa became frantic. “I was out of my mind,” she says. The school hadn’t given her any more information about the allegations against her son — they hadn’t even told her that they’d called the police, in apparent violation of the district’s usual procedures — though the Somerville Department of Health and Human Services told her that school officials had probably contacted the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) as well. For two days, she thought that the DCF or the police might show up at her door; she was particularly worried that the latter might put Roberson, who is Black, at risk.
She began desperately trying to find a lawyer. But not only was J far younger than most attorneys’ clients; he was so young that he couldn’t even be charged with a crime in Massachusetts. Someone who dealt exclusively with criminal law couldn’t assist her.
On Tuesday night, running out of options, she called the WilmerHale Legal Services Center at Harvard Law School. “I was hysterically crying,” she says. “They called the police on my six-year-old.”
Peréa adds, “You think that you have such high capacity and that you understand things but then you run up against this situation and you’re like, ‘Crap, I need someone to help me. And I can’t find anybody to help me.’”
Eventually, Roberson and Peréa would learn the following: Though the Dean of Students told Peréa that the school was treating J’s case as an instance of sexual harassment, that day, school administrators filed two 51As — a form filled out in Massachusetts in cases of suspected child abuse or neglect — with the DCF accusing J of sexual abuse (defined by the state as “Engaging in a non-accidental sexual act(s) with a child that causes harm or substantial risk of harm to the child’s health or welfare”). They had also filed a report with the Somerville Police accusing him of indecent assault and battery (defined as the “indecent” and “intentional touching of another person, without legal justification or excuse”) according to Peréa. Though he couldn’t be charged, J’s personal information was entered into two state databases associating him with different forms of sexual assault, all before he had finished first grade.
What exactly happened between J and his classmate is still unknown, since no one else witnessed it. Still, accounts from the teacher and the classmate, as well as the school’s internal treatment of the incident, don’t match an allegation of sexual harassment, let alone sexual assault. J’s teacher later told Peréa that the classmate told her that J had “touched [the classmate’s] bum.” This differed slightly from what the Dean of Students had told Peréa — that J had touched the classmate’s “private parts.”
The classmate’s family felt that disciplinary action against J was unnecessary, and the two children continued playing together upon J’s return to school. Curiously, even after filing a report with both the DCF and Somerville Police, the school also refrained from punishing J, and while J’s teacher reported the incident to a superior, she didn’t take any direct action against him. Peréa says that in a later meeting, the school’s principal, Glenda Soto, told her that J had done “nothing wrong.”
If J’s teacher’s account is taken as fact, J almost certainly did not do anything wrong by the Somerville Public Schools’s own definition of sexual harassment (which the Dean of Students failed to provide for Peréa, but is searchable online), which states that “Unwelcome sexual advances; requests for sexual favors; or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature may constitute sexual harassment where, A. Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a condition of a person’s employment or educational development, B. Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment or education decisions affecting such individual, or C. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or educational environment.” It is dubious that J’s behavior fits any of these clauses.
There’s also the question of whether a six-year-old can even have the intent necessary to sexually harass or assault anyone — since children younger than twelve can’t be charged with a crime in Massachusetts, lawmakers seem to have decided that they do not. J’s behavior as described by his teacher also appears to be developmentally normal. In a 2009 report on sexual behaviors in children from the American Academy of Pediatrics, researchers wrote that “Most situations that involve sexual behaviors in young children do not require child protective services intervention.”
In a November 21 meeting, the school’s attorney told Roberson and Peréa that the administration’s actions were justified according to the mandated reporter training provided to teachers by the Middlesex Children’s Advocacy Center; per state law, teachers are mandated reporters, meaning that they are required to report sexual abuse. Similarly, when asked to comment for this article, the Somerville Public Schools provided an emailed statement that stipulated that while they couldn’t comment on the specifics of this case: “It is important to understand our obligations as mandated reporters.” The district’s statement explains that, “Mandated reporting is not discretionary. Reporting is conducted without bias, keeping the safety of each and every student at the forefront.”
The mandated reporter training is publicly available online. In an apparent contradiction to claims from the attorney and the school district, the training specifies that, “Sexual curiosity and behaviors that are developmentally appropriate for children six years old or younger do not qualify as sexual abuse.” It continues, “Age-appropriate sexualized behaviors in young children are transient and often only require adult guidance and redirection.” Essentially, these behaviors should not be reported.
And yet, the school administrators did treat the situation as a case of sexual abuse when they filed the 51As. Both forms were screened out — deemed unworthy of investigation — within hours of their being reported. The school also filed a police report. The choice to report the incident as a sexual assault seems to have been made by administrators; Detective Montina-Garcia eventually told Peréa that she was called by either the principal or the director of student services, though she wouldn’t specify which.
Roberson and Peréa are currently seeking an apology from the school and the removal of J’s information from state databases. For a year-and-a-half, they’ve been mystified by what they see as the school administration’s drive to ascribe criminal intent to a six-year-old. Still, it’s not lost on them that J is Black, Latino, and male, and his classmate is white and female. Peréa notes that each report that the school filed “became increasingly more criminal in the language that was used. And every time that happens, it moves further away from being about a child.”
“I think the literature very clearly supports, and all the literature around school-to-prison pipeline, in particular, that school personnel view Black and brown children differently,” she says. “[They] pathologize developmentally appropriate behavior, [which leads to] the criminalization of Black and brown bodies.”
Roberson echoes that sentiment. “On that day, they didn’t see a six-year-old, they didn’t see a child,” he says. “They saw a criminal.”
What happened to J is, by all accounts, highly unusual. But if anything, it’s an extreme manifestation of a racist system that typically works in a far more pernicious manner. As Peréa points out on her website, though the student body of Somerville Public Schools is 9 percent Black and 41 percent Latinx, these students make up 74 percent of students disciplined. According to data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Black and Latinx students make up about 30 percent of the students in Massachusetts, but over 50 percent of the students disciplined across the state.
In the United States as a whole, Black students are far more likely to be punished than white students. A 2019 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America stated that, “Using federal data covering over 32 million students at nearly 96,000 schools, our research demonstrates that the disciplinary gap between black and white students across five types of disciplinary actions is associated with county-level rates of racial bias.”
In studies of school discipline, researchers have found that Black students are more likely to be punished than white students even when controlling for other factors — for example, Black students are four times more likely than white students to be suspended for the same behavior. In a 2016 study from the Yale Child Study Center, researchers tracked the eye movements of teachers in classrooms. Over and over again, they observed a disturbing phenomenon: more than any other group, teachers watch Black boys.
Sometimes, as in J’s case, disciplinary action escalates to police involvement. Many schools in the United States have an agreement with their local police departments called a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which outlines situations in which schools will involve police. Proponents of MOUs argue that they make schools safer. Critics say that they often increase police involvement in schools. In 2019, Somerville’s MOU included a clause in which the school was required to contact the police in cases of alleged sexual assault — which, the school says, is why they called police about J.
J was too young to actually be arrested in Massachusetts. But had he lived in a different state, or if he were born a few years earlier, he could have been handcuffed and taken to a police station. Young children aren’t usually the subjects of arrest, but there are exceptions. A quick search yields several recent examples — in one, from March 2021, a five-year-old boy in Maryland was handcuffed for throwing a basketball at a teacher. In another, an 8-year-old in Florida was arrested for hitting a teacher. Video of the latter incident shows a police officer telling the child, “You know where you’re going? You’re going to jail.”
Still, focusing entirely on elementary-age students may obscure a larger picture. Interactions between students and police in schools become more likely as children grow older. If J were in middle or high school, he may have been put in contact with a school resource officer (SRO) — a police officer stationed inside a school building. Schools across the country have SROs, ostensibly for school safety. A 2020 evaluation of schools with such positions found that SROs do not make schools safer, though they did increase the number of disciplinary actions taken against students. Following the Sandy Hook shooting, Massachusetts passed a law mandating that all schools have SROs, unless they petitioned not to have them. Data indicate that their presence significantly increased the number of school-based arrests. Despite making up only 27 percent of all Massachusetts students, Black and Latinx students accounted for 64 percent of these arrests during the 2015-2016 school year.
The law requiring SROs has since been repealed, and in May of 2021 Somerville schools placed a moratorium on two programs that put police officers in schools within the city, including SROs. The moratorium comes after months of organizing and protest in response to J’s situation, although Andre Green, a member of the city’s School Committee, told the Boston Globe the committee had planned to consider the issue regardless.
Even if students don’t directly interact with police in schools, what happens there may still propel them into the criminal justice system later on. Many forms of punishment in schools — detentions and suspensions, for example — are referred to by experts, such as the American Psychological Association, as “exclusionary discipline”: disciplinary action that “removes or excludes a student from his or her usual educational setting.”
Such punishment is predicated on the belief that such children deserve to be excluded for their “bad” behavior — similar to the belief that those who commit crimes deserve incarceration. Still, it’s worth noting that two-thirds of suspensions in Massachusetts are for non-violent, non-drug-related incidents. Some might also argue that children learn from this kind of punishment — in reality, studies show that once a child has been disciplined this way once, they are more likely to be disciplined again.
Leon Smith, the executive director of the Massachusetts nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice, says that the real effect of exclusionary discipline is that kids “aren’t in school to learn.” When discipline starts with younger children, the effects multiply. Smith adds, “We’ve known from research that students who are behind grade level in reading by the end of third grade have a hard time ever catching up and become more likely to drop out.”
Smith says that instead of using positive reinforcement tactics, exclusionary discipline leads children to lose fundamental building blocks in their education and puts them back into potentially unstable environments. This may be part of the reason why 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are functionally illiterate — as children, they were kept out of schools and shuttled into the carceral system instead.
Sometimes, Roberson and Peréa think about what could have happened to J had they, educated professionals, not been his parents. If his parents hadn’t had the time or resources to speak out about his case and pursue legal action, one imagines that he could have easily fallen into the system described by Smith.
“I’m fortunate in that I’m not afraid of the police,” Peréa says. “I’m not afraid of ICE. I will articulate what I feel needs to be said. I’m good at doing the detective work… I wasn’t afraid to go to the media, because it’s like, if you treat me like this, what the hell else are they doing to other families?”
After the incident, Peréa and Roberson kept J home for two weeks; they consulted his pediatrician and decided to remove him from the school environment for his own safety. They carefully probed him about what had happened with his classmate and explained the importance of keeping his hands to himself. Otherwise, they gave him as little detail as possible. Even if J could have fully understood what was happening, they thought that further explanations could have been traumatizing. “We want [him] to be a normal kid like anybody else,” Roberson says.
At home, Roberson undertook deliberate efforts to distract J. He made sure that J kept up with his school work and taught him math and reading. They spent days at the Boston Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science. Sometimes they visited the Boston Aquarium, which J particularly enjoyed; he likes learning about animals. On other days, they’d just go to the playground. Occasionally, despite his father’s best efforts, J would start crying — he missed his friends, and he missed school. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t go back.
Peréa and Roberson never expected that anything like this would happen to their son. When they moved to the Boston area from New York City, they selected Somerville for its diversity and professed progressive values. They felt comfortable in the community; they were excited to raise their children here.
They weren’t completely naive about the possibility that their son might be treated unfairly. “As a person of color, or, more specifically, a Black man, that’s always in the back of your head, right?” Roberson says. “I mean, we’re in America. Some places are a little more progressive than others. But it doesn’t matter what city you’re in, and how progressive you think they are, there’s always something. You’re going to experience something somewhere.”
Still, they were completely unprepared for this. “To really run up against obstacle after obstacle after obstacle at the local level, at the state level has just been spectacular, I don’t know how to put it,” Peréa says. “It’s been something to actually see [the reality of] when we talk about systemic injustice.”
Peréa and Roberson have fought for a year-and-a-half to get J’s information out of the DCF, Somerville Police, and the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office databases. They still haven’t made much progress; they recently started a GoFundMe to cover their legal expenses.
In June, amid a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, they watched as Somerville hung a Black Lives Matter banner above City Hall. As Peréa notes on her website, Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtanoe also issued a declaration of a local state of emergency, declaring “systemic racism to be a public safety and public health emergency.” Despite her calls for action, Curtanoe has never publicly said anything about J’s case.
That same month, in an email to the school community, Soto, the principal, wrote, “We need [to] take a moment to reflect and stand together to fight systemic racism and give our young men and women of color a chance to navigate this world with the same rights.”
J had been observing all this, too. Though his parents hadn’t told him the full extent of his own situation, they didn’t prevent him from learning about the protests last June and July. To keep it from him, they thought, would be doing him a disservice — he wouldn’t understand how to keep himself safe. “We talk about this a lot,” Peréa says. “We talked about how the rules are different. We talk about how that’s not fair. But we talk about how it’s true.”
Still, that level of understanding had consequences. In February, Peréa and Roberson went on Good Morning America to talk about their story. On the day that their segment aired, they tried to fully explain to J what had happened for the first time; if they didn’t tell him themselves, they thought, somebody else would. Initially, J seemed calm. But when they turned on the TV, he couldn’t make it through.
“He fell apart,” Peréa says. “I mean, he went upstairs and he stayed in the bed, and he was crying all morning. And he literally wrote on a paper because he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t verbalize what he was thinking. He eventually came around, grabbed a piece of paper and wrote, ‘I’m going to jail.’”
Watching him, she was trying to keep herself from crying, too.
— Staff writer Rebecca E. J. Cadenhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ibuprofenaddict.