5 Questions with Travis Silva, Champion of School Discipline Reform


Kerri Pinchuk

Emerson Collective fellow Travis Silva works for students. As an Equal Justice Works fellow working in San Mateo County with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, he fights for restorative justice policies in schools, represents students at expulsion proceedings, and offers legal advice to families who seek it.

A major focus of Travis’s restorative justice work is shifting schools from exclusionary to inclusionary discipline policies, with the ultimate goal of ensuring all students—particularly immigrants and students of color—learn in a positive, safe atmosphere. Emerson Collective’s Kerri Pinchuk asked Travis five questions about his work.

What is inclusionary discipline and how does it differ from the more common exclusionary model?

In the exclusionary model, when two kids get in a fight, they both get suspended. In an inclusionary discipline model, the two kids might be brought into a restorative justice circle to talk to each other about why they fought, about the underlying reasons. They might be asked to speak to other classmates and teachers who witnessed the fight and can speak about the impact the fight had on them.

The school is encouraged to not just deal with the behavior but also whatever lies under the behavior. What might be behind the behavior is bullying, so it’s dealing with the fact that there is bullying happening in school—instead of just “Two kids got in a fight and are suspended for three days. Come back, and next time it happens you’ll be recommended for expulsion.”

Inclusionary discipline models increase the amount of instructional time students receive. When students act up, inclusionary policies reduce disruptions in classrooms and in schools. That’s the primary benefit to teacher and administrator quality of life.

The second, hidden, but ultimately most important benefit, is that when the school is able to support the whole child—and not just the student, but the whole child—and actually help the child deal with underlying issues in their lives, it actually frees the child up to learn. A child who’s not worried about their safety in the classroom will learn better. A child who’s not hungry in the classroom will learn better. A child who can go to a computer lab that was not vandalized last night can learn better. It’s inclusionary discipline as a piece of improving school climate and school culture.

What is the most challenging part of pushing for discipline reforms?

Fear is probably the biggest obstacle. Parents, teachers, and school administrators fear making changes when they think those changes might lead to losing control of their school or their classroom, or having someone who’s unsafe in school. And as someone who used to be a teacher, I understand the motivation behind those fears.

But I also know that all of the research shows that inclusionary discipline practices free up administrators and teachers to spend their time on improving instruction, which is what they want to be doing in the first place. It’s this challenging dynamic inherent in relearning a skill—before you’ve bought in to the new way, it can be difficult to give up the old way, especially if you haven’t yet seen a good model of inclusionary discipline.

Another large part of your job is representing students who are facing expulsion. Does it feel like an all-hands-on-deck approach to help each student, or is it more of a “you against the world” mentality?

That depends on the student. Some kids are really well supported by parents and community, so in those cases there’s more of a coalition. With others, it really is just us against the world. But in all cases, it’s us against the school district. When a school district decides that it’s trying to expel a student, they’re the other side. They’re the opposition.

That’s actually the saddest part: overnight, a school district goes from trying to support a student to actually prosecuting him. And expulsions only last for up to a year, so unless the student is a senior in high school, the student is going to come back to this district. And that relationship can become toxic, really poisonous; and that’s quite sad. We’ll leverage whatever support the child has, if he or she has any, but the constant is that unfortunate adversarial relationship with the school district.

What has surprised you most about this work? And what would most people be surprised to learn?

I was surprised by how desperately the overwhelming majority of the students I work with want to get back into the classroom. Most students I work with are out of school and have been for some time by the time I meet them, usually a couple of weeks. Some people may think, “well these are kids that have acted out—in some cases repeatedly—and so they’re probably fine being out of school.” In almost every case, it’s been the opposite. It’s been both refreshing and a little bit surprising to see how badly my clients want to return to the classroom.

I think most people would also be surprised to learn that unfair expulsions are often most acute in high-income places. In schools where poor children, immigrant children, and children of color form a minority, school administrators are sometimes less equipped to work with these high needs children, leading some school leaders to turn to the discipline tools too quickly.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, black students are four times as likely to be suspended as white students.

What can ordinary people do to encourage these shifts in school disciplines?

There’s actually a really specific answer to that. California is returning significant control over school budgets to school districts. We had a decades-long experience of Sacramento controlling how school districts spend money and we’re moving away from that now. Every spring school districts have to go out into the community and talk to the parents and the community and talk about how they’re going to spend this money—and specifically, how they’re going to spend money that’s earmarked for the high needs student populations that are more likely to experience exclusionary discipline.

I hope more people become a part of that conversation with the districts. If you’re a parent, be a part of that conversation with your child in mind, but also have in mind the needs of the other children in your child’s class, especially the children who are more difficult. Because if that student’s needs are met, then the teacher will have more time to spend on every child’s needs.

Unfortunately, community engagement with this process is low. Wherever you live, whether you’re a parent, student, or concerned community member, I encourage people to get involved in this process­—it’s call the LCAP process—in your local school district.

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