Tim Perrier knew something was wrong as soon as his 9-year-old daughter got off the school bus in late October. Crying, she mumbled something about boys “doing bad things” to her — but when Perrier pressed for specifics, she shook her head.

“I don’t want to talk about that, Daddy,” Perrier remembers her saying. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

A few hours passed before Perrier and his wife succeeded in drawing out the details, which they later confirmed against contemporaneous statements written by two other girls who were there: A group of boys in their class at Gale-Bailey Elementary in Charles County, Md., made sexual threats to all three girls during recess, the girls said, then grabbed Perrier’s daughter and simulated sexual acts over her clothes.

“They said they were going to rape her,” said Perrier. “They simulated the moves on her, up against her. They said their boy parts were a flute and [the girls] were going to play them.”

The school announced last week that its principal and vice principal will be stepping down. For the past month, they’ve been publicly criticized for the way the school dealt with the alleged assault.

After the girls reported what happened, immediately after the incident, Perrier said, a teacher told them to “stay away” from the boys and return to the playground, where they continued to be sexually harassed and assaulted. At the end of the day, the school — without notifying any parents — put some of the girls and boys on the same bus. One of the girls says she was assaulted again on the way home.

Initially, the school district announced a response plan that Perrier and Seth Heisserman, the father of another one of the girls, found completely out of line with the offense: The principal proposed moving the boys to the other side of the same classroom and keeping the boys inside for two weeks of recess. In a statement issued last week, the school district wrote, “Our primary concern is the well-being of the students involved in this incident and we will continue to be available to support all of the children concerned.” (The school has declined to comment in more detail because of privacy concerns.)

These kinds of sexual misconduct cases — between very young children — are some of the hardest for schools to handle. Under Title IX, which guarantees equal access to education for all students, schools are legally required to create a safe environment. With college or high school students, it’s easier to know what to do: Make the alleged victim feel safe, investigate the assault, and, if necessary, punish the student responsible. But elementary-aged students probably don’t fully understand what they’re saying or doing, said Carolyn Stone, a professor of counselor education at the University of North Florida. And if they do, it could be because they’ve been abused themselves.

“This is one of those areas where we are hopelessly in the gray,” said Stone. “Are they learning this somehow because it’s being done to them? How are we supposed to know?”

Especially with young kids, Stone says, the priority should be on “remedying the environment,” rather than punishing the perpetrator. In the Gale-Bailey case, the girls should have immediately been separated from the boys they said assaulted them, at least until administrators could properly investigate. When schools are trying to make a school safe for all students, she says, sometimes they need to discipline the student accused. But with kids this young, schools should be trying to avoid suspension or expulsion, said Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

“You want to be trying therapy, counseling…trying to fix this behavior rather than just pushing someone out of school entirely,” said Martin.

When schools don’t do enough to respond, Stone said, they risk the parents going to the police — which will probably result in far more severe repercussions than any discipline the school could have prescribed. Schools should be aiming to keep young kids “out of the system,” she says, because the recidivism rate is “truly scary.”

Perrier didn’t want to go to the police — he understands that the boys’ actions are very likely a direct result of abuse they’ve experienced themselves — but he felt like he had to.

One of the boys in the Gail-Bailey case has been charged with fourth-degree sexual offense and second-degree sexual assault. The school subsequently suspended him, said Heisserman. (While the school won’t confirm the details, Heisserman has heard from several other parents that the student has been enrolled in a different Charles County school.) All that probably could have been avoided, Stone said, if the parents had felt like the school was taking the incident seriously.

Perrier confirmed Stone’s theory: He reported the incident to the Sheriff because he wanted to make sure someone worked with the boys to change their behavior, he said.

“The only reason we pursued this with law enforcement is that this is the only way in our system for a juvenile to be forced to get help,” Perrier said. “Social services can help him.”

But the school can call Child Protective Services without the police ever getting involved in the incident itself, Stone said. In most of these cases, she says, administrators should be calling CPS— out of concern for the alleged perpetrator. (It’s unclear whether CPS was called in this case. The superintendent and principal declined requests for an interview.) If an elementary school kid is making rape threats and simulating sexual assault, Stone says, a CPS officer should be investigating their home life, looking for evidence of abuse.

There is no “magic age” that makes kids old enough to take full responsibility for incidents of sexual abuse, said Stone. But for elementary-school aged students, schools should assume kids don’t really understand what they’ve done. When a 5-year-old pulls down his pants on the playground, for example, it’s clearly very different from when a high-schooler does the same thing, said Martin.

“The younger the child, the greater the responsibility to educate, and prevent them from becoming a part of the court system,” Stone said.

With middle school students, she says, it gets a little trickier. As kids get a little older, schools need to study the context of the incident to determine how they should respond: How severe was the harassment? How remorseful is the student?

When a child doesn’t understand sexual misconduct and why it’s wrong, Stone said, she blames the adults in his life, especially the teachers and administrators at his school.

“If that child suddenly finds himself in handcuffs, sitting in a police cruiser,” she said, “then shame on us.”

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