Turan Rush was only 12 when he was suspended from school for the first time.
He and his friends, sixth graders at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Charleston, were hanging out in the school lunchroom in 2010 when they started roughhousing. Rush ended up suspended from school for 10 days for play fighting; that experience, he said, taught him at a young age to distrust authority figures like teachers and principals.
“As a 12-year-old, it takes a lot from you,” Rush said. “And it makes you become rebellious.”
Rush’s experience isn’t unusual for Black kids in West Virginia.
While Black children make up less than 5% of the total student population in West Virginia public schools, they are suspended from school at twice the rate of their white classmates, federal data from the past two decades shows.
In 2020, state lawmakers charged the state education department with analyzing data and creating a statewide program to address how often disciplinary actions are used by local school officials.
SB 723 initially did not mention racial disparities but was later amended by the lawmakers to require the collection of data on “race, gender, and disability.”
This weekend, lawmakers are set to receive a report from the West Virginia Department of Education that includes discipline data and a progress update on the statewide program. This report comes almost a decade after the department first started looking at the issue.
But Rev. Matthew Watts, a longtime community activist on Charleston’s West Side, isn’t hopeful that this report will have new information. Watts has been pushing state officials to address discipline issues since 2015 and has seen little action beyond data collection.
“It is beyond frustrating,” he said. “It borders on educational malpractice.”
School suspensions have broad impacts
The impacts of school suspensions extend far beyond missing a few days of class. Research shows that when a child is suspended from school, they are more likely to have poor grades, drop out of school, not graduate, commit a crime, or be incarcerated.
Collectively, these trends are known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which disproportionately results in students of color and low-income students ending up in jail or prison.
Rush said he was suspended from school twice in middle school. He was given in-school suspensions, placed in detention hall or moved to classes away from his friends more times than he could count.
He said teachers would punish him and other students, both Black and white, from Charleston’s low-income West Side neighborhood instead of checking in with students to find out why they acted the way they did.
“I think a lot of people in authority in the school system forget their students are humans instead of numbers and percentages,” Rush said. “That’s the disconnect.”
It’s been a decade since Rush was in middle school; spokesperson Briana Warner said in an email that Kanawha County Schools has done many things in recent years to make discipline more equitable. That includes implicit bias training for administrators, providing schools with a wide range of early intervention measures and encouraging them to use them. She said the district is currently reviewing behavior policies.
Wanda Cox, a Black rights activist, social worker and the vice chair of a state group that administers federal grants to improve the juvenile justice system, said that racial disparities in school discipline are a reflection of what is happening in society.
“At the high school level, Black students may get punished for minor offenses while the white students receive mercy for committing major offenses or even crimes,” Cox said.
In 2019, researchers from two universities in Kentucky found that students across the nation who were suspended from school were six times more likely to be incarcerated than students who were not.
Nearly a decade of data collection
Even though lawmakers have yet to receive the first discipline data report due under the new law, West Virginia officials have known for nearly a decade that there are disparities in how Black and white kids are disciplined in state schools.
In 2013, researchers from the state Department of Education published a report that found suspension was being used often, even for minor offenses. They also found that Black students were twice as likely to be suspended and recommended that the department investigate the issue. Two years later, they wrote a second report that was based on more recent data and repeated almost verbatim the same findings and recommendations.
Despite this, the state Board of Education voted in 2019 to make it easier for schools to punish students more harshly without being held accountable by the state.
The change to the state’s disciplinary policy allows schools to punish kids with out-of-school suspension for minor offenses like cheating, “disruptive conduct,” “inappropriate language,” “inappropriate appearance” and “disrespectful behavior,” but schools are no longer penalized for these types of offenses under the state’s accountability system. That accountability system grades each school’s performance on an annual basis and can trigger improvement plans.
Now, the report that will be presented to lawmakers on the Education Accountability Committee this weekend should show more about whether that change has exacerbated the state’s discipline disparities.
“They had never looked at what the problems were — the behavioral problems or any kind of problems that students were having,” said Sen. Rollan Roberts, a Republican from Raleigh County and a sponsor of the 2020 bill to require the data collection and statewide program. “There hadn't been any focused effort and looking at things. So I'm eager to hear what their report is going to be.”
Watts is less hopeful that yet another report can solve the issues.
He’s seen the effects of school suspensions on Charleston’s West Side, one of West Virginia’s few areas with a substantial number of Black residents. To him, school suspensions are an “underlying condition” that increases education achievement gaps, school dropout rates, and juvenile incarcerations for thousands of low-income students, white and Black.
“It is having a cumulative effect on de-educating low-income people in West Virginia,” Watts said. “Therefore, it is contributing significantly to the low labor force participation rate — because of the low educational skill level — and it's perpetuating poverty. It is one of the number one factors that is perpetuating poverty in the state of West Virginia.”
What’s working in one community
In Kanawha County, a group of concerned community members have found some success combating the school-to-prison pipeline in two ways: church involvement and sports.
On Charleston’s West Side, the nonprofit Midian Leadership Project recently opened a community center.
It operates from 2 to 9 p.m. and offers a space where athletes and nonathletes alike can gather after school to practice, play games, or do homework.
Jeff Biddle, the project’s director and a longtime youth pastor, said sports can be an environment where kids can make mistakes and have adults help them instead of punishing them.
“They're not getting that in an environment where the tiniest infraction is the first three strikes that can send them to jail,” Biddle said. “And in the athletic world, though, they have four or five practices a week, where when you make a mistake, somebody says: ‘Do it again, do right.’”
Biddle has been mentoring kids long enough that some of them are grown up and have come back to mentor the next generation. Turan Rush is among them.
Rush is the deputy director of the project, and said he often didn’t feel like teachers and principals understood him or his culture growing up.
Rush went on to play college football and is pursuing a professional career in athletics, but after his playing days are up, he said he plans to come back to West Virginia and become the kind of principal he wishes he had. Kids today, he said, are dealing with uncertain home lives, drug use and violence when they’re not in school.
“We go to school. That's maybe the safest time to be a kid,” Rush said. “And they would try to steal that from us.”
West Virginia University students Ershad Khan and Nicole Jares contributed reporting.