A Columbia High School senior regularly cut class as a freshman and sophomore.
The 18-year-old was expelled in fall 2011 when administrators at the Burbank school caught him with marijuana on school grounds.
Now Javier Meraz patrols the dance floor at school events to make sure shoes aren't scuffing Columbia High's new gym floor.
And despite missing a semester's worth of courses before being allowed to return, he is graduating on time with his class June 6.
It took faith and tough love for Javier to turn himself around, but he managed to do it with the help of family, friends, teachers and faith, he said.
"My passion in life is standing out, being an independent leader," he said.
Those who helped Javier get back on the right path said his transformation has been amazing to see.
"He was a leader the wrong way," said Principal Kyle Miller. "This year, he's a leader in the right way."
Javier is the youngest of his four siblings and has always lived just down the street from the three Columbia School District schools.
His parents separated when he was 7, and his mother was often away from home working to support the family, he said.
That led Javier to look up to others who didn't have the best habits or attitudes, he said.
He got into drugs, specifically marijuana. In middle school and high school, he regularly was disciplined for truancy.
The teen was never a troublemaker or a threat, Miller said, but he wasn't a motivated student, as evidenced by his frequent class cutting and mediocre grades. Javier and his friends also often were 20 minutes or so late coming back from lunch and usually smelled of weed.
"I searched him for drugs quite a bit of the time," Miller said.
It was on Nov. 14, 2011, that Javier got caught. A drug dog on loan to the Walla Walla Sheriff's Office from the Walla Walla Police Department visited the campus. It was after the dog showed up that Miller heard about a group of students sprinting out the back door of the gym.
The principal caught up with the fleeing students, which included Javier. Suspicious, he searched the teen's backpack. Inside, he found a deodorant container concealing about half a gram of marijuana. Javier was expelled soon after, per district policy, and he didn't appeal the decision.
The expulsion got Javier's family's attention, said sister Liliana Meraz, 26.
Javier went to counseling. Liliana and sister Lisset Meraz intervened. Both were teen mothers who graduated from Columbia High and went on to have careers.
It was the sisters who went to the district with Javier in spring 2012 to ask for him to be re-enrolled.
Their mother also applied a tough love approach: she required Javier to pay his way, from paying rent to live at home, to covering his food and other expenses. She also helped him secure work as a field worker and sent him to Mexico for part of the summer in 2012 to work alongside his father and brother.
"I think it helped him realize how much it hurt us that he didn't want to succeed," Liliana said.
Javier said a few of his friends also helped him find his way, specifically fellow senior Shane Rule, 17, who helped him find faith in God.
"He'd come to me with problems," Shane said. "I just stayed by his side."
Beginning his junior year, Javier applied himself more at school. He enrolled in the law enforcement program at Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick and began reading more on his own time, particularly books on self-improvement.
"I'd write notes on my goals, my passions," he said.
He joined the student council and helped with fundraisers for student events, including being the "cop" to enforce school rules at dances. A few teachers also have asked him to counsel other students who are struggling and unmotivated.
"I don't recognize him from three years ago," Miller said.
Javier has also taken on a part-time job, working at Craft Warehouse in Kennewick where Liliana is an assistant manager.
"He's one of my best cashiers," she said.
Sharing his story
Javier intends to enroll at a four-year university but is waiting to save money and line up scholarships to pay for it. He's not sure yet what he wants to study, but he plans to continue reading, specifically books on psychology.
Ultimately, he said he just wants to have an effect on others.
"I don't want to die and not have my story told," he said.
For now, though, his family said his turnaround is a strong sign he will live up to that goal.
"I'm so excited for him," Liliana said. "(Our mom) is going to throw a party for him, which we never got. But he totally deserves it."
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald