Ernesto Matias

“Parents bring a sense of urgency.”

When her son, a graduate of Wells High School, was shot and killed, Felipa Mena decided to direct her advocacy efforts toward preventing more violence. At a time when student conflict at Wells had careened out of control and more than half of the students transferred out to other schools, Felipa went to Principal Ernesto Matias to suggest that he consider using Peace Circles as an alternative to suspensions. He agreed and the Peace Center’s work has been growing at Wells High School ever since.

Thinking about Felipa’s idea, I said to myself, ‘We can suspend kids—and we do—but are we really equipping them to make good decisions out there? We don’t. The Peace Circles run by COFI parents provide students with tools to de-escalate potentially violent conflict. They also offer rehabilitative consequences that involve reflecting on what was done wrong and how to make up for it. That’s a different approach.

Changing the climate at Wells to safety and security was the priority. The big question is how do you move kids from hopelessness to hope? A lot of what we see is not kid created. But you label kids at-risk, and then expect them to behave when they come to school. And the backdrop to their life has been people who let them down. The result? Hurt kids hurting other kids. So the challenge was getting our kids to reflect so they actually think that they are players in their lives instead of bystanders. In a culture of poverty, we let things happen to us. We’ll say it’s destiny rather than making decisions that might propel us to a different counter narrative.

When I came here in 2008, the kids thought discipline was discipline and that’s it. We’re trying to empower our kids so they know they have a choice about how to react to negative situations. Just because someone mean mugs you doesn’t mean you give them a fist to the face. That’s where Peace Circles come in, helping our kids reflect on their actions and also realize that they can decide how to respond to those stressful situations.

It didn’t take much to sell me on the Peace Center idea. Felipa mentioned similar efforts in Austin that I was familiar with. Anything that helps our kids that’s not a duplicate of something we’re already doing was worth investigating. We had a meeting and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s get it going. What do you need?’ We identified a room for them to hold the circles and that was it. I’m not much on red tape.

That’s how it started. Now we’ve got Peace Circles two days a week—Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. Felipa and two other COFI parents run the Peace Center. Anywhere from 15 to 20 kids are involved, depending on what’s going on. We’re working on tracking results more closely, but overall, our misconducts are a little bit lower than they were. It’s hard to track prevention. The Peace Center usually catches students before they come to blows.

I think it could expand. Staff needs to be trained so they know the Circles are an alternative to suspension. It’s hard for people to digest. We are an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth society, and to get away from that towards mercy and love and repentance, that’s a big step. Yet you’ve got to go toward that if you’re going to revive our kids. They already know about revenge and punishment. But grace and mercy? They don’t know what to do with that.

I learned to respect parent voices when I was an assistant principal at an elementary school and worked with a principal who valued and listened to them. Before learning better, I just assumed parents were blindly advocating for their children and didn’t know what they were talking about.

Where the parents are sensible and on point, there’s room to include them in school decision-making. Through working with COFI, I’ve been enlightened around restorative justice and social justice. Their voices are consistently humming about alternatives to suspensions and zero tolerance—a policy that doesn’t work. That’s one thing COFI and their parents do really well. They are persistent on the issue and are respectful about working with us to find solutions because we’re losing too many kids.

When it comes to policy change, parents bring a sense of urgency to an issue because they deal with it every day. COFI represents the parent voices that are often ignored. Too often, it’s not until parents start screaming and hollering that people notice. And they shouldn’t have to do that to get what most parents want—help to solve a problem. Screaming and shouting will get you noticed, but it’s not effective.