A journey from truant to organizer to teacher activist

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By B. Denise Hawkins, photo above courtesy of Erika Strauss Chavarria

For Erika Strauss Chavarria, high school could be a grind. That’s why the teen escaped, when she could, from the confines of her Howard County, Md. school, or just didn’t show up at all.

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“My issue as a student was truancy and being constantly late and absent. I would skip and it got me suspended, once. A lot of the time I was bored with my classes,” admits Chavarria. But she found purpose in advocating for students if she thought they were being unfairly treated. At age 15, that passion drove her to lead a student walk out and step into the role of organizer and activist on her campus. Still, she managed to graduate from Wild Lake High School. That was 16 years ago.

Fast forward. School disciplinary policies and excessive suspensions are pushing more students out of the classroom and off track. And federal findings show that race is a factor in school in school discipline. It starts early. Black 4- and 5-year-olds account for almost half of the preschoolers suspended more than once from school. Overall, Black students of all ages are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than White students.

Nationwide, more than 3 million public school students were given an out-of-school suspension at least once, and of that number, 1.55 million were suspended multiple times during the 2011-2012 school year, found a new report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. Chavarria’s truancy and regular run-ins with teachers and school administrators could have made her a statistic—and derailed her future. In some school districts, even minor, non-violent school infractions like disrupting and skipping class, using profanity and cell phone infractions can send students home and on a fast-track to prison as quickly as more serious offenses, like weapons and drug possession.

Today, Chavarria, a Spanish teacher at Wild Lake High School, is working to shut down the pipeline that’s channeling students from the classroom to the criminal or juvenile justice system. A member of NEA’s Committee on School-to-Prison Pipeline and School Discipline, which is developing a comprehensive NEA position on these issues, Chavarria remembers who set her on this course: His name was Desmond, a bright, lanky, “tattooed-covered” student struggling to steer clear of gang life. He “just wanted to finish high school and graduate,” she says. But that didn’t happen. A fight in the hall between Desmond and another student escalated into an altercation with a school police officer who tried to break it up. The incident ended badly for Desmond. He was handcuffed, expelled, and whisked from school to jail. That day, Chavarria, his teacher, cried for a long time.

“Then I started researching school-to-prison pipeline”—and prepared to find a better way forward for her students. “I don’t believe in suspension and expulsion. Those should be the last resort for students,” says Chavarria who instead tries to “make emotional connections and talk one-on-one” with students when they are in trouble and need to be disciplined. Now trained, she also incorporates restorative justice methods as an alternative to harsh discipline and referrals. In many school districts, restorative justice programs are working to short circuit misbehavior and keep more students in school. This is what it the practice looks like in Chavarria’s classroom: For about 15 minutes, she gathers her students into “restorative or peace circles” to create a positive and trusting space for building a culture of community, discussing “real-life issues like race” and to collectively tackle student problems that could later explode into a crisis at school.

So far, “This investment in time has been worth it. It’s all about my students,” says Chavarria who’s been teaching for six year. Restorative justice and other efforts to keep students in school, also make good economic sense. Losing even one grade of high school students, the UCLA study found, can cost taxpayers more than $35 billion a year.

“I know restorative justice is not an overnight fix to address suspensions, but there needs to be an alternative in schools as well as buy-in from teachers, parents, school administrators and districts.” In the meantime, Chavarria continues to crisscross the country, speaking out about school discipline and policies that are landing more students, especially students of color, in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Sign the petition to end the school to prison pipeline and learn more about restorative practices here.

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