Students, parents, and community organizers in Somerville, Mass., held a demonstration on the lawn of the city’s public high school on May 19 following two racist incidents the previous week. On May 9, a white staff member used the N-word in front of multiple Black students. Later at dismissal, another Black student was slammed to the ground by a police officer.
High school students immediately circulated a paper petition demanding the firing of the administrator. They received over 120 signatures in less than 24 hours. This was the second time this year that a teacher used the N-word at the school.
A pattern of racist practices
“When members of the high school staff were reported saying the N-word on multiple occasions they were left with absolutely zero repercussions,” a student named Donju Felix told the crowd. “A Black student who was reported for saying the N-word [was] suspended.”
In an email sent to parents by Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne and Superintendent Mary Skipper, the assault of the student was downplayed as “a tussle, resulting in the officer bringing the student to the ground.” There was no acknowledgement of the slur used by staff earlier that day.
Tenth grade class president Marcus Odilon, who witnessed the attack, said, “[the police officer] body slammed the student to the floor, and proceeded to push him multiple times.”
The fight against racism at Somerville Public Schools
Three years ago, SPS called the police on Flavia Peréa’s six-year-old son. He was reported to the state for sexual harassment and given a criminal record.
Community members formed the organization Justice for Flavia in response. They successfully campaigned for a moratorium on the School Resource Officer program. However, the moratorium is not permanent and there’s an effort among school administrators to bring Resource Officers back to Somerville High Schools.
Somerville has a Memorandum of Understanding between public schools and the police department. The agreement creates a broad set of minor disciplinary issues that faculty is required to report to the police. It explicitly lists “annoying phone calls,” “possession of alcohol,” and “reckless behavior” as mandatory reportable incidents. Justice for Flavia has consulted with legal experts to put together a new MOU that reduces the mandatory reportable incidents to the minimum required by state law. Organizers continue to push for this less carceral version to be adopted by the school committee.
Earlier this year, Justice for Flavia submitted a petition to the school committee, with more than 230 signatures, including 91 current students, 70 alums and 35 staff members, demanding the permanent removal of police from schools.
Matthew Kennedy, an organizer with Justice for Flavia told Liberation News, “We were promised an open and transparent process that sought to get all perspectives on the issue. Instead, we know for a fact that School Committee Chair Andre Green explicitly requested that organizers be kept out of the Special Policing Subcommittee in a leaked email.”
Somerville city government declared racism a public health emergency in 2020. In 2022, they are excluding anti-racist organizers. “The city does not want those of us who are the most informed or directly harmed by policing to have a say in whether or not cops remain in our schools,” Kennedy said.
In his speech at the rally, Kennedy stressed that the issue of policing in schools goes beyond SROs. “The cop who was called on Flavia’s son was not an SRO. Even with a moratorium in place a kid got tackled to the ground by police last week.”
After the rally, Odilon, Felix, and another student leader Marcia Narh-Botchway, led a march to city hall. They delivered a letter to Mayor Ballantyne, Superintendent Skipper and School Committee Chair Green. The letter demanded “the removal of police from schools, the implementation of a fully-funded restorative justice program, annual anti-racism training districtwide in SPS, and a comprehensive independent equity audit of SPS.”
Inside city hall, they spoke briefly with Somerville’s Director of Racial and Social Justice Denise Molina Capers who promised to follow up with them by Monday about meeting with city officials.