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Reflecting on the incident involving Flavia Peréa’s son, community members and representatives question police presence

(Somerville Wire) – On November 12, 2019, Flavia Peréa’s six-year-old son “J”, a student at the Argenziano School in Somerville, was reported to the police. The dean of students called Peréa to tell her that her son had inappropriately touched a girl in their first-grade classroom. J is a student of color, while the girl is white. The two were good friends and have been described by a fundraiser for Peréa as having been very playful. The girl told a classroom teacher that J had “touched [her] bum,” yet when the school administration contacted Peréa, the language changed to become more serious, stating that J had touched her “private parts.” J was reported to the Somerville Police Department, and he now has a police record.

On April 12, 2021, Peréa was joined by representatives from the organization Justice for Flavia to deliver a letter to Mayor Joe Curtatone, signed by over 300 supporters. The group is calling for J’s record to be expunged, denouncing the incident as an issue of systemic racism at play in schools. They are also calling for the following changes: the removal of police from schools, the replacement of police with counselors, a fully funded restorative justice program, annual district wide anti-racism and implicit bias training, and an independent equity audit of schools. According to Sara Gordon Halawa, a member of the leadership team at the Justice for Flavia group, the reporting of J was racially motivated.

“A sexual assault investigation was filed with DCF. It was immediately screened out by DCF. Many white parents have come forward and said that their children have done the same thing, and it never left the classroom,” said Halawa. “In this instance, they also called the police, and it turned from ‘he touched my bum’ to ‘he grabbed her privates.’ They opened an aggravated sexual assault investigation on a six-year-old child. I think that was very inappropriate use of police in our schools and was racially motivated, for sure. We’re still waiting for the mayor, the superintendent, and the school committee to apologize and repair the harm.”

The role of police in schools has been part of an ongoing discussion in Somerville. Formerly, there would be one officer situated at Somerville High School, known as a student resource officer. The Somerville Police Department also held something called the Student and Teachers Engage Public Safety initiative, in which officers would mentor students in grades 6-12, as part of a program that was meant to foster community between youth and police. Halawa said that the program was not run with the explicit consent of parents. Finally, there are community police officers who would respond to calls. At a School Committee meeting held on May 17, School Committee Member Sarah Phillips proposed that there should be a temporary pause on the presence of the SRO and the STEPS initiative. Phillips mentioned that among other problems, there had been a situation wherein a police officer used social media “to monitor the behavior of students that he met through the STEPS program.”

“We know that research shows that the mere presence of a police officer in school increases the likelihood that a student will be referred to law enforcement for adolescent behavior,” said Phillips. “Increased police presence in schools also exacerbates students’ feelings of lack of safety and distress, especially among Black and Latino students.” She added, “I know that we all know how serious this issue is, but parts of our discussion on the 3rd made me worried that we don’t have a common understanding of the potential pitfalls of the SRO and STEPS program. … What I didn’t hear was any self reflective conversation about the potential racially disparate impacts or safeguards we put in place to ensure that these programs are actually interrupting the school to prison pipeline.”

A memorandum of understanding that was signed in 2018 establishes a relationship between Somerville Public Schools and the Somerville Police Department and would have been in effect during the time when the incident with Peréa’s son happened. It included a section detailing what could be considered a mandatory reportable incident, including annoying phone calls, “sexting,” hazing, and bullying. Because the School Committee almost unanimously voted on a moratorium for STEPS and the SRO presence, it is unclear whether the MOU is currently in effect. The School Committee did not verify its status before this article went to press. Meanwhile, Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen recently put in an order for the City Council asking how a resident might go about getting a local police record expunged. Local police departments cannot simply destroy records, he said, but there is “a process that involves State law, going to a judge. I would encourage anybody who feels that there is a police record that was made in error to pursue that.” Reflecting on the programs that police have been involved in, Ewen-Campen said that he strongly believes officers do not have a place in schools.

“I’ve heard concerning stories that to me make it seem like despite all the stated best intentions, it’s not really possible for these officers to take off their law enforcement hats. I don’t think they intend any of their work in the schools to be punitive,” said Ewen-Campen. “I don’t think the issue is what anyone’s intent is. … We send all of our kids to be educated. I just don’t think that having them interact with armed law enforcement officers, on school grounds, during school hours, is appropriate.”

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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