[J.J.] is a very angry and violent child. He daily has fights with other children. He is very, very disrespectful to other people—children and adults. He curses constantly and does not listen to counseling. . . .
The child about whom Thomasine Holloway complained was only eight years old, a pint-sized bully who became the terror of her second-grade class at P.S. 207 in Harlem. Holloway felt she had done all she could for the young incorrigible. Six months before he went on a sex rampage in 1998, Holloway threw up her hands in frustration. She recommended that the student who imagined himself as “007”—but who could not identify a picture of Donald Duck and was more than a year behind in reading and math—be placed in the custody of the Committee on Special Education.
Between March 23 and May 20 of 1998, a Voice investigation reveals, J.J. was written up 28 times and either reprimanded or “taken to the office” for offenses such as: hitting a boy “for touching his coat”; scratching a girl’s face; striking a teacher; asserting that his teacher “sucks”; using the “F-word” while talking to a teacher; breaking his pencil eight times; crawling around on the floor; walking in the school barefoot; “screaming at the top of his lungs”; and instigating a fight between two boys and shouting, “Who the hell she thinks she is?” at a teacher who tried to intervene. J.J., who was described as “emotionally disturbed” in one evaluation, also once slapped a classmate so hard that “the noise carried down the hall.”
Today J.J., now 11, remains under the watchful eyes of disciplinarians at Abbott House, a group home and foster-care agency in upstate New York where he was banished after his conviction on two counts of first-degree sodomy and two counts of first-degree sexual abuse. No one at P.S. 207 had foreseen that the erratic behavior of the schoolyard bully might someday produce one of the youngest sexual predators in the city’s school system. J.J.’s mother has challenged this violent portrayal of her son, insisting to school officials that his “behavior is manageable.” She showed the Voice a letter she received from a teacher who described J.J. as “focused, calm, and involved and well-behaved” during a music class. “This is the first time,” the teacher noted. “I couldn’t be more proud of him and more delighted!”
J.J.’s “inappropriate physical contact” with two girls younger than him is not an aberration. Last week, in the wake of a New York Times report that sex-related incidents in city-run schools are occurring at a rate of 10 per week—up 13 percent this year—Schools Chancellor Harold Levy and Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik have agreed to look for ways to reduce sex attacks among students, including possibly installing more security cameras in the most troubled schools.
The Times reported the rate of sex attacks on students by other students or by adults is more than twice the rate of other urban schools. The newspaper reviewed local and national statistics. New York City’s rate of 37 sex attacks per 100,000 students is more than double the rate for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second largest, according to the newspaper. Los Angeles reported 109 sexual incidents last year, a rate of 15 per 100,000 students. Sexual groping, rape, and sodomy are all covered in the category of sexual incidents.
The crackdown by police and school officials comes more than three years too late in the case of J.J., who wanted to, in his words, “grow up to be a hero, lawyer, protector, karate trainer.” Instead, he is seen as a classic example of a sex offender in the making.
“From early morning in the schoolyard, [J.J.] picks fights with other children,” Holloway wrote in her report to the special education committee. “He tells students’ parents to ‘shut up’ and ‘get out of my face!’ ” J.J. had “a distaste” for schoolwork, but was fascinated with the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “The only academic area [J.J.] exhibited any interest in was . . . King,” Holloway noted. “He listened and wanted to participate in those lessons.” The little ruffneck may have embraced King’s lesson of nonviolence, but he clearly didn’t practice it.
In the four months J.J. had been in Holloway’s class, she watched him orchestrate several “confrontational situations”—all to his advantage. “He has a lot of street smarts,” Holloway observed. “If he feels he is in control of a situation, he will assist children with life skills, such as tying shoelaces, zipping coats, etc.”
According to Holloway, J.J. was P.S. 207’s bully of all bullies, who “sometimes acts as the defender of weaker children,” enforcing his own code of discipline on other strong-arming kids. “He will sometime hit children when he hears they have bullied or hurt others,” she charged. But the bully, who suffers from asthma, did not have a conscience. He picked on younger, weaker children and teachers who were fearful of him. During a fire drill, Holloway recalled, a teacher warned J.J. “not to touch his kindergarten children.” On May 8, 1998, J.J. walked out of his art class and commandeered the entrance to the boy’s bathroom. There, he and a student, Bobby, got into a dispute.
“[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.
J.J.’s transfer to another second-grade class “initially brought about some improvement.” Carmona recalled that J.J. desperately sought acceptance in a boys’ group of three second-graders. “[J.J.] has proved to be a positive influence in this group, a youngster who shows polite manners and conversational skills,” Carmona wrote. “He also displays leadership qualities in guiding/reminding his peers when their behavior deviates from the group rules.” But J.J.’s teacher began to detect “gradual deterioration” and a return to disruptive behavior. His faults were just as noticeable to Carmona. “[T]his examiner is concerned by [J.J.’s] daily attempts to stay in her office, stating his dislike of remaining in the classroom,” the psychologist wrote. “He stated that he leaves the classroom because he gets mad [for] reasons unknown to him.”
J.J. became emotionally attached to Carmona. “Although he was cooperative and put forth good effort in the tasks, he was restless in his seat and needed to be coaxed to sustain his focus and motivation,” she wrote regarding her sessions with him. “He . . . tended to lay across his desk, and later moved to the double cushion chair, eventually laying down on it. Later, when the examiner momentarily went to the adjacent office, she came back to discover [J.J.] ‘missing.’ ” But J.J. was “very quietly hiding under the cushioned chair.” He told Carmona “his actions [were] a retaliation towards the examiner for ‘tricking’ him on a puzzle activity which had presented a great deal of difficulty for him.”
During the testing, J.J. reacted in an agitated way to street noises. “A car backfiring was perceived as his brother’s dirt bike making noise; a lawn mower was perceived in a similar way,” the examiner wrote. “He stopped to listen to somebody talking outside on the street. A few times during the course of this session, [J.J.] walked to the office door to [listen to] voices in the adjacent office.”
Carmona concluded that J.J. was prone to “acting out inner anger inappropriately.” All of his drawings and stories “involved violence with retaliation imposed” by James Bond. “This singular focus prevails in his inner emotional life, which is capable of being expressed when [J.J.] reaches his tolerance threshold for meeting demands that are placed on him,” she argued. “His figure drawing reflected a bewildered, helpless figure who is impulsively driven to pursue aggressive means as a protective stance against figures perceived as threatening to his physical well-being.”
Two days after this alarming report, J.J. showed his library teacher who was boss. After he was told several times to stop talking and to get out of another student’s seat, the bully “grabbed a little girl from behind, put one arm around her neck and scratched her arm with his free hand.” Three weeks later, according to the father of one of his classmates, J.J. “punched my son in the face.” (A month earlier he had choked the boy in class.)
J.J. continued to defy his teachers. About a week after the punching incident, while returning from lunch, a teacher complained that “[J.J.] left the back of the line, where he should be (I’d asked him four times already) and went in front of [another boy] and hit him as hard as he could.” On May 20, six days before J.J. sexually assaulted the girls, Timothy Devaney, assistant to the principal, claimed he was attacked by the student with the explosive temper. J.J. had showed up in Mr. Perga’s class late, slinging a yo-yo. “He refused to do any work and then said he was tired and wanted to call his mother,” Devaney wrote. “Mr. Perga said he couldn’t leave unless he was sick. He got up and left without permission.” Devaney later tried to reason with J.J. in the principal’s office.
“He would not cooperate when I gave him paper to write down what was wrong.” Several times Devaney asked J.J. to put away the yo-yo. “I took the yo-yo away from him and he scratched me and kicked me away,” Devaney charged. “He went behind the counter and dumped the drawer of emergency cards onto the floor. He then took his bookbag and left the building. The security guard . . . called him back and brought him to the office.”
As J.J.’s behavior worsened, his academic performance weakened. The Board of Education again tested the troublesome student who had a “tendency” to write backward on the blackboard and misspell house as hoe. During a science quiz, the examiner noted that although J.J. knew that humans need a nose to help them breathe and “what it is called when the earth shakes so hard that things fall down,” he was “unable to identify a picture of a kangaroo” or say what a skunk does “to protect itself from its enemies.” This, the examiner added, put J.J. “at the low end of average” in such proficiency tests. Asked to recite the popular childhood nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” J.J. got as far as saying, “It’s fleece was white as. . . ,” and then drew a blank.
J.J.’s nursery crimes had turned into felonious assaults. Maybe they were momentary lapses in the life of a boy interrupted—crimes he committed when he was not thinking like his hero Martin Luther King. Make no excuses for what J.J. did to little Keisha and little Dee Dee. But he is not to be blamed. The real culprits are the smut peddlers who robbed him of his innocence and force-fed him sex and violence. While the manchild pined for his deadbeat dad and big brother, he escaped into the virtual worlds of James Bond and other aggressive Nintendo action figures. To this day, his mother insists that school officials and child minders railroaded her son. Should his teachers, psychologists, and social workers have done a better job of ascertaining why J.J. often went berserk? Could the medication, which his apprehensive mother refused to give him, have controlled his outbursts? Who’ll answer for making a mess out of little J.J.’s life?
Research assistance: Skye McFarlane. The names of the children in this article have been changed.