By Rebeca Muñiz, Candidate for Seattle School Board District 3
My first encounters with Mariah* were filled with absolute resistance. She was twelve years old and the middle child of a family of five, living all together in public housing in San Francisco. When I first met her we sat across from each other at the snack table. I wore a large grin, unlike her serious piercing stare.
“Ms. Rebeca, do you sleep with a knife?” she asked.
As an AmeriCorps service member, students called me Ms. Rebeca. I served as an after-school program coordinator and teacher in the San Francisco area, and one of my first experiences was meeting this student who transformed the way I think about education and the opportunities it can have for children.
My insides turned at the thought of sleeping with a knife. “No, Mariah, I do not sleep with a knife. Do you?”
“Yes, I sleep with a knife,” she said. “I keep it under my pillow.”
I was unsure how to respond to such a frightening revelation.
“Why do you sleep with a knife under your pillow, Mariah?” I inquired.
“Just in case anybody tries to get fresh with me.”
This ended our conversation as she stood up and walked away, leaving me to process that neither home nor sleep can be a safe place for Mariah from predatory treatment.
I knew, however, that if Mariah brought this type of behavior to school, it would not be tolerated. She was likely to be penalized by those who would label her a "problematic student," too readily dismissing her humanity. When you look into her eyes, there is innocence and trauma present, passed on through generations and accumulated through her own experiences.
Many of my student population witnessed shootings, and many had suffered the loss of one or both parents, whether by incarceration or separation. It was clear many were dealing with some sort of instability in the home.
When I would attend classes with Mariah, I would observe as she was removed from a classroom based on her first “offense” of being out of her chair in class. Under the current system of inequality, the color of her skin and gender would continue to put her on track for expulsion as opposed to earning her the benefit of the doubt.
Black children — and boys in general — are at a heightened risk of expulsion due to racial and gender biases about inappropriate and dangerous behavior. Thankfully, we can enact legislation to curtail feeding this school-to-prison pipeline. It’s time to challenge the punitive responses in school that criminalize students and instead create more humane schools. We need policy solutions that include not expelling any child from our publicly-funded early education programs. We must also expand our current administrative trainings for implicit bias in disciplinary practices, provide mental health services for teachers and students to address the underlying problems in our system, and invest in Restorative Justice.
We are responsible for the learning experience imparted to students such as Mariah. As a society we need to provide services for those who need it most. Let’s create environments that provide safe places for learning opportunities and growth to invest in the next generation of students. Let's speak truth to practice, and build a future that includes all students.
*Name changed to protect privacy
Rebeca Muñiz is a candidate for Seattle School Board District 3. She holds a Masters in Education Policy and Leadership from the University of Washington. During her time at UW, she conducted research on the Seattle Public Schools racial equity teams, which informed her understanding of systemic disparities in schools and ways we can address it. Rebeca now serves as a volunteer with One America and the Gender Justice League.
Learn more about Rebeca’s campaign at www.ElectMuniz.com.
“I want to ensure that our children learn in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality, and solidarity.”
- Rebeca Muñiz