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Unless There's Imminent Danger, Schools Shouldn't Rush To Call The Cops On Kids

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School is supposed to be a place where a child can feel safe. When that safety is called into question, especially due to the actions of teachers and school staff, school becomes something to be feared — which is why a first-grader in Massachusetts will never look at school the same.

In November of 2019, the police were called on a six-year-old little boy, who had no previous history of disciplinary issues in school, before his parents were contacted. What was the cause? The accusation is that he sexually harassed a classmate. His parents, Roberson and Flavia Perea, were only notified after the police were called, after the dean of students told authorities that he sexually harassed a little girl and touched her inappropriately, according to a report.

It’s no secret that Black and Brown kids are policed and often wrongly accused of crimes they did not commit more often than their white peers, which is traumatic in and of itself. As much as I wish I could say this is an isolated incident — because this kind of thing should never happen — it isn’t, not by a long shot. There’s the case of the 11-year-old girl in New Mexico who was tackled for being “disruptive,” for example. And the handcuffing and pepper-spraying of a nine year old by police in Rochester, New York … just a couple of examples from a list that’s far too long.

The American Psychological Association (APA) states that childhood trauma is defined as an “emotional response to a terrible event.” What if that trauma is caused in school? When a child experiences trauma, brain function is also impacted — from memory impairment to emotional regulation — and manifests in other symptoms like anxiety and negative behaviors. For this six-year-old boy, the traumatic experience of having a police officer apprehend him in school will likely impact his educational journey, possibly for the rest of his life

Over a year later, his parents are still seeking justice. They believe that the school went too far in calling the police before they were called, and that the color of his skin impacted their judgment. “It’s heartbreaking to, speaking as a Black man, to send my son, our son, to a place where I don’t think he is safe,” Roberson Perea told WCVB news, adding that “Unfortunately, when school personnel often look at a Black and brown boy, they don’t see a little kid. They don’t see the child behaving like a child, they immediately pathologize what would happen, they assumed the worst, they criminalize his behavior.”

Perea’s sentiment is echoed in an opinion piece published by Boston University’s Daily Free Press. “The adults in the situation enforced such extreme escalation procedures in this relatively harmless case involving a Black and Latino child pitted against a white child, which is certainly reflective of personal racial bias, but also calls into question the infrastructure that designed the response system they claim to be adhering to,” says the editorial. “When stripped to its basic tenets, this unfortunate situation is a direct result of the culture and policy that created the discriminatory prison industrial complex in the United States today. It is woefully apparent our public education system is deeply flawed when its authorities begin to mirror the prison system in their treatment of six-year-old children.”

Lisa Thurau, founder of the nonprofit Strategies for Youth, which trains law enforcement on how to properly interact with kids, told the Boston Globe, “I find it extremely disturbing that a touch would escalate into a characterization of abuse and criminalized behavior. I don’t understand what the school was thinking.” She goes on to say, “Even if they were trying to protect the girl and their own legal exposure, there seems like there are a half dozen other ways to handle this situation that would have been less traumatizing for both students and their families.”

With my own kids, the school always calls me first. If they can’t reach me, they leave a voicemail. And if I do not call back, then they call my partner. This is how it should always work: parents need to be the first to know what is happening to their kids, especially at school. It is our right as parents. And in this case, it’s even more imperative for the parents to be called first.

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Recently, in my own daughter’s class, an incident happened where another child told her that she would kill her; this was the second incident with the same child making the same statement. Each time, the teacher called me, apologized profusely, and my comment to her was this: “I understand. They are in kindergarten and who knows exactly what the child is thinking? I appreciate your call. Please keep an eye on my kid.” The teacher explained how she took both kids, mine and the other child, and explained to them how it was wrong what was said, and the child apologized. Does the apology make it okay? No. Is it messed up that another kid said that to my kid? Hell yes! Did my kid’s teacher call the cops on the other child? No. Did I want the teacher to call the cops? Also no. My child was threatened and hurt by the experience, but she handled it, and then called me. As parents, we have an obligation to teach our kids about right and wrong, to have conversations with them, but so do teachers and school officials — and most do.

Unfortunately for the Pereas’ son, the school contacted authorities first, and now he has a record that his parents are still fighting to clear.

We live in a society in which his parents already need to have “the talk” with him because of his skin color. Imagine the trauma he must be facing now, and the questions he must be asking himself about the police and his place in the world. And let’s not forget about the feelings of the child he is accused of harming in this way. What is she feeling? What really happened between the two of them? And has this happened to other children, both the sexual harassment accusation and the call to the police within the same district?

While the Somerville school district maintains that they did the right thing, stating, “Our teachers and staff have, and are expected to, follow all necessary reporting procedures and obligations as required by all relevant agencies and authorities,” they admit that there are issues. “Our district and our school committee are also fully committed to continuing the deep equity work that we have been intensifying over the last several years.” Whatever they need to do to address the issues within their district, they should start with getting the record of this little boy expunged. They might also consider paying for therapy to help him through the trauma he is dealing with because of their cruel injustice.

In a resource for parents called “This Is Your Student’s Brain on Trauma,” licensed social worker, trauma and sexual abuse specialist Patricia Olney Murphy states, “Children of trauma are at times ‘offline’ and unavailable for learning due to symptoms they may experience such as intrusive thoughts, dissociation, flashbacks, or an under/over-active limbic system.”

When kids go to school, they expect to be safe, they expect to be heard, and they expect to be given the opportunity to learn and grow. The lessons to be learned from this particular case is that all schools, classrooms, districts, and students are not alike, nor are they treated alike. The issue of equity within the academic setting is not new, but because of the Black Lives Matter Movement and the death of George Floyd, we are paying more attention. Still, we have a long way to go to make equity a living, breathing thing in our public school systems across America.

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