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In Brockton, boy's parents hire lawyer

School system apologizes, to alter harassment policy

Berthena Dorinvil said the case has hurt her 6-year-old son.
Berthena Dorinvil said the case has hurt her 6-year-old son. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

BROCKTON -- One day after the Brockton school system apologized for suspending a 6-year-old boy for sexual harassment, the boy's parents hired a lawyer to investigate the school system's handling of the matter, the family's lawyer said yesterday.

The case and the widespread attention it generated has prompted the school system to change its sexual harassment policy, Basan ''Buzz" Nembirkow, superintendent of Brockton schools, said yesterday. He said that the system made a private apology to the boy and his family Thursday.

Nembirkow said in an interview that the incident never should have been labeled sexual harassment or have been referred to the Plymouth district attorney's office, which did not consider the incident a crime.

''We apologized for the mislabeling and for our procedure," said Nembirkow, who said he has received hate mail from all over the country and even a telephone call from Geraldo Rivera's talk show. ''Generally speaking, I would tend to agree that no 6-year-old could be accused of sexual harassment."

The boy, who was suspended from the Joseph H. Downey Elementary School for three days last week after allegedly touching a female classmate on the skin of her back at the waistband of her pants, began attending the first grade at another elementary school yesterday after the school system agreed to a transfer requested by his parents.

Berthena Dorinvil, the boy's mother, said she asked for a transfer to another elementary school because she did not want her son to be stigmatized at school by the incident. Her transfer request had initially been denied, so she said she kept her son home from school after his suspension ended because he did not want to return to Downey, where he had told her people were mean to him. As she unloaded groceries from her minivan in her driveway yesterday, Dorinvil said that her son is happy with his new school, which she would not name. Her son sat in the passenger seat with his seat belt on as she talked to reporters. ''I want to stand to defend my rights," she said, but declined to comment further and referred the media to her lawyer, John Pavlos, whom she retained yesterday.

''The first priority of the parents has been to restore the child to his world as a 6-year-old," Pavlos said by phone. ''I think now some of the attention and concerns of the parents are what actually happened at the school. It was certainly an inappropriate response to the behavior of a 6-year-old."

Dorinvil said that her son, an only child who has been raised in the conservative moral tradition of Haitian evangelicalism, denied touching the girl on her skin. She said he told her that he touched her on the back, over her clothes, after she touched him first.

Nembirkow said he could not discuss details of the case.

Pavlos said the Dorinvils feel that their son has been mentally and emotionally injured, but have not decided whether to file a lawsuit. First, he said, the family wants to know how the school staff treated their son during the incident. Pavlos said he intends to ask the school system more questions next week.

Nembirkow said the incident got out of hand because school staff closely followed the district's sexual harassment policy, which was established in 1999 in response to a requirement by the Massachusetts Department of Education to establish a reporting policy for all discipline cases.

Brockton will add ''inappropriate touching" to the form, so teachers and principals can check that instead of ''sexual harassment," depending on the incident, he said. All discipline will be reviewed by an administrator before referral to an outside agency, such as police or the district attorney.

''Our procedures created the situation where [sexual harassment] was the only block you could check," Nembirkow said. ''There was not an appropriate category for this kind of incident for 6-year-olds. This has gotten blown way out of proportion."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

 FROM THE GLOBE ARCHIVES: Boy's suspension in harassment case outrages mother (By Ralph Ranalli and Raja Mishra, Globe Staff, 2/8/06)
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