By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"[Bobby] came back to his teacher, Ms. Wright, crying hysterically that [J.J.] had beat him up," principal Leonora Shapiro told the boy's mother in a letter. "He claimed [J.J.] punched, kicked, and scratched him when he came out of the bathroom. When [J.J.], [Bobby] and . . . Ms. Wright came to the office, [J.J.] admitted that he punched, scratched, and kicked [Bobby], because [Bobby] spit on him. [Bobby] claims he did not spit on [J.J.]" Another teacher, "Mr. Perga," had complained to J.J.'s mother that J.J., who was "hitting kids in the room" and "leaving . . . 5 or 6 times a day without permission" was "supposed to be with an adult at all times."
No one listened.
On the afternoon of May 26, 1998, Keisha, a six-year-old classmate of J.J., could not hide the secret she'd been harboring since the boy confronted her in the girl's lavatory.
Later that day, during a routine counseling session with P.S. 207's social worker, Shifra Levin, Keisha claimed that she and another student, Dee Dee, were in the lavatory on the first floor when J.J. suddenly appeared. He unzipped his pants and told the girls, "Suck my dick!" When the girls hesitated, he declared, "If you don't suck my dick, you are a punk or a sissy."
Keisha said she punked out. "[Keisha] claimed that she did not do this but that [Dee Dee] did," Levin stated in a memo. "Then [J.J.] blocked their way out, but [Keisha] went under his arms and got out. She went back to the lunchroom but did not tell anyone what happened because she was afraid of getting into trouble. She stated that she didn't perform the act [J.J.] asked them to because she would get his germs and that she is too young to do this."
But in Levin's interview with Dee Dee, the child claimed that the other girl had performed oral sex on J.J. The next day, in a handwritten note, Dee Dee's mother stated that it was Keisha who was "sucking the boy's penis." She urged the school administrators "to do something about this!" After "extensive questioning" by investigators in the Division of School Safety, according to one report, "both girls admitted that each took part in this act." (Perhaps Keisha was afraid of J.J. Three months before forcing her into the sexual act, school records indicate that J.J. had "hit [Keisha] in the face" even as he was being restrained by a teacher.)
The parents of both girls called the police, who took them to a victims' unit. The day after he sodomized his classmates, J.J. did not show up for school. He was suspended on May 29. On June 9, Community School District 3 superintendent Patricia Romandetto reinstated J.J. on the condition that he "receive intensive group and individual counseling." But 10 days later, on an order from a Family Court judge, J.J. wound up in a psychiatric unit at Bellevue Hospital.
"[T]he child was diagnosed with conduct disorder," according to court records. J.J.'s examiners recommended that he be "treated with medication" and sent to a residential therapeutic center. His mother allegedly "refused these requests," and was "unwilling to have this therapy commenced." At this point, the Administration for Children's Services, the city's controversial child-protection agency, seized J.J. On July 22, ACS filed a petition in Family Court against his mother, charging her with neglect.
Social workers dug deep into J.J.'s family history, trying to understand why the boy was acting out. In a 1998 report, one investigator noted that J.J. had not seen his father "in a while and does not ask about him." At the time, he had a 20-year-old brother with whom he spoke often on the phone and admired. His mother stated that "the brother is not around now," according to the report. At the time, J.J. had not seen his brother in eight months.
Besides some older cousins who regularly taunted J.J., he played with children his age and loved to build go-carts, play Nintendo, visit the library, and cook. In an interview with a social worker, his mother depicted him as a street-smart youngster who could be put on a bus by himself and sent to visit relatives in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. "[S]he has received no complaints from them," the social worker's report pointed out. At home, the bullyboy slept with his mama, was "talked to," and had TV privileges taken away when he misbehaved. "[J.J.] will get angry and go to his room [but] she doesn't have to do this often," the social worker wrote.
When J.J. began attending P.S. 207 in the fall of 1997, "his poor adjustment during the first term was highlighted by frequent out-of-seat and disruptive behavior in the classroom," according to a 1998 report by school psychologist Suzanne Carmona. He frequently skipped classes and was "unresponsive to adult authority figures." About two months before he was charged with sexually abusing classmates, J.J. was suspended "for hitting a teacher, who had thwarted his action of swinging a belt" at several students.