Suspended: How an LAUSD journalism teacher’s ‘dream’ job at school named for slain reporter Daniel Pearl turned into nightmare
Bryan Sarabia | October 18, 2022
Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up for the LA School Report newsletter.
On the day she made a decision leading to suspension from her “dream” journalism teaching job at an L.A. Unified high school named for slain reporter Daniel Pearl, Adriana Chavira had no second thoughts and taught her classes as usual.
But the chain of events stemming from publication of a November, 2021 student newspaper article was already in motion, turning Chavira’s journalism post at the Daniel Pearl Magnet High School into a nightmare.
After her students published the name of the school’s librarian who refused the COVID vaccine, school administrators demanded the staffer’s name be removed. Chavira, a former journalist, refused, leading to an unpaid three day suspension.
“It never dawned on me to not publish her name, it took us a while to get that story published because we wanted to make sure everything was correct,” Chavira told LA School Report. “As far as I can remember, we never had a conversation about whether or not to publish the name.”
On a typical day Chavira — who has since been reinstated after LAUSD officials rescinded the suspension — helps edit stories, asks students what sources they are reaching out to and oversees the publications of the school’s student-run news website.
“It’s a dream school for anyone who teaches journalism; it’s all I teach,” Chaivra said. “I teach the classes that produce our yearbook, news magazine and website. I help kids write, produce videos, edit photos, all of that. So to me, it’s a dream job. I’m just doing journalism the whole day with the kids.”
In an interview with LA School Report, Chavira discusses the ten-month ordeal:
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your foundation, the beginning of your career, was in journalism. What was the motivation behind that? Why did you choose to become a journalist?
I knew since the eighth grade that I wanted to go into journalism. I was a good writer and I like writing, so I really enjoyed it. My family was always big on keeping up with the news. We watched the four o’clock news in English, then the six o’clock news in Spanish. My dad brought home La Opinion every day. We talked a lot about news and the importance of staying aware of what was happening. So I decided to pursue journalism. In college I majored in journalism and I wrote for the school newspaper for two semesters. After I graduated, I was working at daily newspapers for ten years before I decided to leave journalism. And I somehow fell into teaching.
Was there a reason why you wanted to go into teaching? Or was it a spontaneous decision?
After 10 years in journalism I was not happy anymore. I started thinking about what else I could do. I volunteered with CCNMA (now Latino Journalists of California) in summer workshops where journalists would work with high school students for two weeks and show them how to report. The kids would produce stories, a newspaper, stuff like that. I really enjoyed that, so I thought, “maybe I can go into teaching and be a journalism teacher.” At about the same time LAUSD had a program that helped people who were changing careers. So I got hired to teach full time while going to get my teaching credentials in the evenings. It was just kind of perfect timing to make the transition.
Is there a special approach you take when teaching young journalists? Maybe a piece of advice or wisdom you pass on to your students?
I just try to get them out of their comfort zone. They come in as ninth graders, they’re intimidated about having to approach people and interview them, take their photo. As they grow, they gain more self confidence and by their senior year they’re leading the class in presentations and stuff like that. I love to see how they get out of their comfort zone and grow as individuals.
Take me to the day this article was published, before the whirlwind of events that happened. Did you take a final look at the story before it was published? Was there a moment of hesitation where someone or yourself may have said, ‘maybe we shouldn’t publish this person’s name’?
No, I don’t think that ever happened. I think it was more making sure everything in the article was accurate. The mandate happened sometime in the middle of October. Starting on that particular day, anyone on staff or faculty that was not vaccinated had to be off campus. So right away the kids found out about that. One of my editors was a TA for the teacher-librarian, so right away she knew why her teacher was not there. We had that information that same day, but it took the kids a while to do the reporting, the double-checking, trying to contact anyone they could to get them on the record. They did contact the librarian a few times, there was an exchange of emails with her. She obviously didn’t want to be interviewed. It never dawned on me to not publish her name, it took us a while to get that story published because we wanted to make sure everything was correct. As far as I can remember, we never had a conversation about whether or not to publish the name. It was more about asking the kids, “double check on that,” “are you sure you know that?” “you know she’s not vaccinated?”
Why did you feel like revealing her name was important? What was the significance of this?
Like most publications, my students covered everything from the pandemic. Just because the students weren’t in the school during distance learning doesn’t mean the students didn’t report on what was happening regarding COVID-19. During remote learning the students reported on mental health issues, how some students struggled with learning during that time, they reported on academics, on how they missed sports and how they missed social interactions. When the students returned to campus, they covered kids getting their weekly PCR tests. They wrote about kids getting vaccinated because our campus offered it. The kids took photos of other students getting vaccinated. So to us, this was just another angle to the pandemic coverage as a whole.
Your administrators were the first to give you push back on this article. As a teacher, how did that make you feel?
I never really had anyone before tell me to take something down. I’ve had principals where maybe they didn’t agree with the angle students covered something, but they never said to take anything down to make the school look better. I never got anything like that. So I was surprised that my principal would say that. I replied that we were not taking it down. By that time the students and I had already met with someone from the Student Press Law Center. The attorney assured the kids they were in the right: the story we published was newsworthy. We also talked about California Ed Code 48907. (Note: The law protects student journalists from censorship.) So I said to the principal, “I’m not taking it down and these are the reasons why.” But my administration just kept going and going. At one point they opened an investigation on me because they thought I was the one who revealed the vaccination status of the librarian to the kids. I didn’t even know anything about her; I didn’t really talk to her, so it wasn’t coming from me. The investigation concluded and they said there was no wrongdoing. So when they continued with the whole censorship issue, I was taken aback that they were still going on.
What was going through your mind when you were given your suspension?
I didn’t think this was going to be that bad, I didn’t think they were going to get to that point. I was surprised. It was unexpected that they would think of suspending me. It was in May that I learned I was going to be suspended. In June, right before summer break, they were supposed to tell me when and how long the suspension would be, but that was delayed until fall. The whole summer I knew I was going to get suspended but I didn’t know when or how long. One thing that many people don’t realize is that, let’s say they suspended me, but I came back and the information would still be on the website because I was not going to take it down. The district could have moved to fire me if they wanted to and that was definitely not something I was prepared for.
Did you feel your job was on the line?
And did you feel like both of these issues, COVID-19 vaccinations and the censorship of journalists, were important enough to risk your job?
Definitely yes. The thought of losing my job is something that definitely hurts. But I was willing to risk it. I was willing to risk it because as journalists, we’re standing up serving as a watchdog for the government, but all of the sudden here’s the government that you’re looking over telling you what to do. I mean, that’s totally against our values. I knew all along that I was right. We have a section in the California Ed Code that is backing us. In fact, one of my journalism mentors from when I first started was one of the ones who pushed for that legislation to pass. So I was very aware of that. There was no way I was going to back down because I knew I was right. The district was wrong, my principal was wrong. I’m actually surprised that no one from their legal offices stopped and asked, “Okay, what are we doing? This is wrong.”
I’ve noticed others have likened this situation to the story of David vs. Goliath. Did you feel like David going into the LAUSD Board meeting? What was going through your mind during this moment?
I didn’t feel like that. Yes, LAUSD is the second largest school district in the country, but that didn’t intimidate me. I was just standing up for my students and their story. I wanted to educate those in that room that there was an Ed Code they were violating. There’s also the first amendment. The district was violating all of that.
Greta Enszer was your school’s librarian and your colleague. Don’t you think that she may be entitled to privacy concerning her bodily autonomy and her personal medical decisions?
The district is the one who, for lack of a better word, outed her. There were (nearly 500) people in the district who were pulled from their campuses. Not all of them were fired. Some are still with the district as far as I know…I think this is a public safety issue because you have people getting COVID, even as we’re back in the classroom. At the time we were getting spikes in the number of cases and we had students who lost family members to COVID. On top of that, we’re a small school of about 220 students and 14 faculty members. So when someone is not there, the kids definitely notice. Everyone sees everyone and knows their business. Plus, she openly talked about it in her class to the students. I never personally sat in one of her classes to hear her say that, but it was no secret, at least not among the kids.
You’ve had your suspension rescinded recently and you are back in the classroom. How do you think this story, which ends in your victory, will impact your students? What do you hope they can learn from this?
We had this conversation earlier this week. My students feel empowered knowing that their voice matters and they are being heard. I have one student who is very passionate about journalism and she said this reaffirmed that this is what she wants to pursue as a career. One of the first things the kids learn is to make sure they are reporting accurately. Now they know they shouldn’t shy away from anything controversial. This experience is not going to self-censor them. We talked about how they will cover the stories that reflect their community and they’re not going to back down just because it’s going to make the school look bad.
With your story being picked up by several major publications, how do you feel now after everything has happened? And is there something you’re looking forward to in the future?
I was definitely surprised at how big the story was. I knew being suspended for refusing to censor students at a journalism school named after Daniel Pearl, who was killed while reporting, was a story. I just didn’t think it was going to get this much public support. One thing I do want, and this is why I stuck to my guns, is to make sure that other journalism advisors do not give in. California has laws that protect journalism advisors and their students. I want to make sure no other administrators go up to their teachers and pressure them to take any publications down because ‘it will make the school look bad.’ Most of all, I want students to feel empowered. I want to make sure they’re doing good reporting and telling stories in their community and to not feel bullied or penalized by their administrators. I want students to realize that they do have rights, and that they should stand up for themselves.
This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.
Bryan Sarabia is a junior at the University of Southern California, originally from Houston, Texas. He is majoring in journalism and Spanish.