Education

He was suspended, then things got worse. But this CMS teen never gave up.

A lot of people are cheering Ja'Quaveyon Barber's graduation from Hopewell High.

There are the people you'd expect: His parents. His friends. The faculty who know him as bright, personable and highly motivated.

And there are those you might not expect. Such as the administrator who met him after he'd been suspended for fighting. And the judge who saw Barber at one of the worst points of his life.

Barber, known to his friends as Quay, graduates on Saturday with his dreams and his future intact. In fact, he's taking part in a pioneering Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools program that sends graduates straight into high-paying careers.

His life could have taken a very different track.

He's been bolstered by supportive parents and faculty who focused on his promise more than his problems. But the adults in his life agree: Barber himself deserves credit for refusing to give up.

"If I put my mind to it," Barber says, "I'm going to do it."

Highs and lows

Barber entered Hopewell High in Huntersville as a pretty typical freshman. He was excited about playing football. He had attended Marie G. Davis military/leadership magnet school in middle school, so he signed up for ROTC.

He immediately impressed teachers and administrators as respectful and dedicated. He wasn't at the top of his class, but his grades were good.

And Barber always worked to earn his own money. Even before high school he had started doing chores for elderly people. After he was old enough for a work permit he took jobs with Dairy Queen, Mecklenburg County, Little Caesar's Pizza, UPS and Mays Auto Detailing, his favorite.

But in 10th grade, Barber got into a scuffle with one of his friends at school. Other students piled in, and Barber got a 10-day suspension for fighting. After that, Assistant Principal Patrice McCauley convened a hearing to decide whether he should be sent to an alternative school.

McCauley saw a smart, motivated teen whose parents cared deeply about his success. The parents worried that his behavior at school didn't match the values he'd been taught at home.

Not only did McCauley agree to keep Barber at Hopewell, she emerged as one of his biggest fans.

"I fell in love with his drive," she recalls. "I let him know, 'You're very intelligent. You're trying to impress the wrong people.' "

By his junior year, Barber had stopped playing football (he'd been injured) and left ROTC (he wanted to grow his hair long). He was still doing well in classes and working hard after hours.

But in November 2016, his life took a dark turn.

Accused of shoplifting

The day after Thanksgiving, Barber and a friend went shopping at Northlake Mall. They'd bought items at several stores before they entered Belk.

Barber, who was 16 at the time, bought a shirt and was walking out with two other teens, one of whom had joined them at the store, when a large plainclothes security officer accosted them. According to Barber, his mother and his lawyer, that guard ended up grabbing Barber, throwing him to the ground and having him arrested, saying the young men had stolen clothes.

His mother, Stantavia Wright, was devastated when she got the call. She says she'd given Barber the talk all black parents give their sons, the one about always being under suspicion and avoiding confrontation with police at all costs. Now her son was not only charged with larceny but with resisting a public officer and assault.

Barber insisted he was innocent, and his mother believed him. When Assistant Public Defender Carson Smith got the case, he was perplexed. Here was a kid with a clean record, but "I've never seen so many charges out of a larceny," Smith said. What, he wondered, had his client done?

If Barber had been willing to plead guilty to one of the misdemeanor charges, he could have gotten probation, with the charge dismissed if he stayed out of trouble during that time. But that would have meant a conviction would be on his record as he was applying for colleges.

Smith told him a trial was a big risk. But he and his mother insisted: No guilty plea.

They wanted to show he had been racially profiled and falsely accused. But Wright's heart fell when she saw the judge who would decide her son's fate.

He was an older white man with "a no-nonsense face," she recalls. Would he believe them?

It's all on camera

What she didn't know was that District Judge Lou Trosch has spent more than a decade leading discussions on how unconscious racial bias shapes the criminal justice system — including his own perceptions. And what Trosch saw that day was almost a textbook case, he would later say.

Trosch recalls that a store security witness said they'd started tracking the African-American teens on camera only after seeing suspicious behavior. In fact, the video showed the camera was on them from the moment they entered.

And that would prove to be Barber's salvation.

Barber's lawyer played about 45 minutes of security footage that showed Barber doing just what he said he did: Trying on a shirt, paying for it and walking toward the exit. Smith says it also showed the other two youth grabbing several items and heading into the dressing room separately.

As the trio left together, Smith says, a "very, very large loss prevention officer" approached the group and grabbed Barber by the shirt. "Quay kind of pushed back on that, and the officer just took him to the ground," Smith said.

That officer, who was not in the courtroom when the video was played, testified that he'd gone into the dressing area, peeked under the door and seen the three youths in one stall, Smith said. But while there are no security cameras in the dressing rooms, there's one on the entrance. And it showed that officer never came in while the teens were inside, Smith said.

At that point, a clearly irate Judge Trosch asked the prosecutor if he'd like to dismiss the charges.

He did.

Rebuilding a future

McCauley and other Hopewell faculty never knew details of the episode, but they sent letters to the court attesting that Barber is a good student and a good person. And even when Barber was angry and distracted as the case dragged on, they tried to keep him focused on school.

This year a new opportunity arose when CMS launched a partnership with Carolinas Electrical Training Institute to offer selected seniors paid apprenticeships and after-graduation training that lead to an electrical journeyman's certificate. That appealed to Barber, with his longstanding love of earning a paycheck. Instead of piling up college debt, he could earn about $36,000 a year right out of high school while taking classes and learning on the job.

He took a test, did an interview and was one of five Hopewell students chosen for an apprenticeship.

Ultimately Barber dreams of building his own house. But for now the focus is on wrapping up the twisted journey that was high school.

He spoke to an elementary school about overcoming obstacles. His advice: "Keep your head up."

His father, Spellman Barber, bought him a graduation suit. The younger Barber beamed when he described how smooth he'd look.

His mom planned a party and reminisced about how it seemed like just yesterday that her son was a chubby-cheeked toddler.

"He overcame a lot of adversity to get where he is," Wright said before graduation. "That's just going to be the proudest day, not only of his life but my life."

A few days before commencement, Barber gained one more well-wisher when a reporter called Judge Trosch to check details of the court case. Trosch was delighted when he heard it was a success story.

"That's great to hear! Tell him congratulations," Trosch said, "from a stern old white guy."

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

About this series

The Observer asked readers and others for suggestions of standout graduates. Today, we continue a series of stories about students who illustrate a range of accomplishments, including some who overcame significant obstacles.

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