Using union power to close the school-to-prison pipeline – a tale of two teachers

Robin McNair (left) and Erika Strauss Chavarria

By David Sheridan

Robin McNair was so critical of her district’s punitive discipline policies and practices—too many boys and girls of color were being pushed out of the system into the school-to-prison pipeline—that her union, the Prince Georges Education Association in Maryland, named her chair of its Discipline Committee.

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A veteran high school teacher, Robin McNair knew an opportunity when she saw one. Under her leadership and with her union’s support, the district has been persuaded to incorporate restorative practices into its Student Behavior Handbook; and it has collaborated with the union in providing a four-day restorative practices professional development training for educators. “We are pursuing long-term solutions through training rather than a band-aide,” says Robin McNair. For resources on closing the school-to-prison pipeline and restorative justice and practices, you can visit our school-to-prison pipeline page.

One of the reasons Robin McNair has proven to be such an effective advocate for change is that she herself had to undergo a transformation. “I always had rapport with my students, but I realized I was too quick to put students out of my classroom and into the pipeline. Now when I tell my colleagues that if you want to see change in your classroom, you have to take a look at yourself in the mirror—they listen—because that’s what I had to do.”

“Get to know your students, really know them. If you don’t know them, you can’t teach them,” McNair urges. “And if a student says or does something you don’t like, don’t immediately deploy your high octane voice and go all punitive. Take the time to find out why the student is acting like she is.”

As a school leader on student discipline, McNair has focused on both boys and girls. Black girls are five times as likely to be suspended from school as white girls. In a recent NEA EdJustice live conversation on Facebook, McNair joined with Adaku Onyeka-Crawford of the National Women’s Law Center. Both women agreed that the uneven rates of discipline are not due to more frequent or serious misbehavior. Instead, race and gender bias drive unfair discipline.

Newer to the profession, Erika Strauss Chavarria teaches high school in nearby Howard County, Maryland. Early in her career she witnessed in her school the arrest of a student who had been fighting with another student. After being led away in handcuffs by a police office, that student was never seen again in the school.

The incident shook Erika to her very core. She knew the student who had been arrested. To her, he was much more than a statistic. He had transferred from Baltimore after his mother died and was living with his aunt. He was intensely focused on graduating from high school.

It motivated her to seek an alternative to the “zero tolerance” policy which reigned in her school at the time. Erika’s independent research led her to restorative justice and practices. She received some training through the International Institute for Restorative Practices, but felt she needed more. Then she attended NEA training in restorative practices, including peace circles, at a Maryland State Education Association conference. For Erika, it was “life changing.” She even served on the NEA Task Force on Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

Like Robin McNair, Erika thinks it important to focus on both boys and girls when addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. “We so often hear girls of color labeled as ‘defiant’ in our schools. I think educators are acting on their implicit biases, and in the case of Black girls, they’re stereotyping them as more aggressive, angry, oversexualized, lazy and less capable, instead of getting to know them.”

“In seven years of teaching, I have never referred a student from my classroom for punishment,” says Erika Strauss Chavarria. “I don’t see the classroom as a power struggle between teacher and student, rather as a place where you build mutual respect.”

When a student ends up in the principal’s office for something they’ve done in another classroom or elsewhere in the school, Erika is often the teacher that student asks to join them. What’s more, other teachers seek her out for advice about a student who is giving them “trouble.”

“Restorative practices aren’t something you just start doing out of the blue because it sounds like a good idea,” adds Erika. “Everyone needs to be trained in them. My union, the Howard County Education Association, has always supported me in my efforts to get training. And now, the union’s Minority Affairs Committee is going to provide our members training in restorative practices. I’m very pleased about that.”

In fact, all over the country, educators and their unions are taking the lead in closing the school-to-prison pipeline.

Reader Comments

  1. Sorry for the correction, but these two women are members of the Maryland State Education Association, not the old name of Maryland State Teachers Association.
    Thank you,
    David Nicholson

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