By Stephen Magagnini and Maya Pottiger
After their mother was sent to prison for a crime of passion, Dr. J. Luke Wood and his twin brother Josh, two Black kids born in Oakland, wound up with a foster family in McCloud, California, a small lumber town in the woods south of Mt. Shasta.
As two of the only Black students at McCloud Elementary, they were bullied mercilessly by a swarm of White kids, and every time they tried to defend themselves, it seemed they were suspended, not their antagonists, Dr. Wood said. “I had an amazingly positive experience in 1st Grade, but in 5th grade we went from having teachers who genuinely cared about me, or were at least indifferent, to a teacher who saw me as a problem and wanted to destroy me. She used to call us ‘cotton heads,’ or ‘niglets’.”
Dr. Wood, 38, said he was suspended 42 times in 5th grade, while his brother Josh was suspended 24 times. “They had a desk set up for me outside the principal’s office,” he recalled. The suspensions were triggered by “small things,” Wood recalled. “I’d turn around in my seat and I’d be suspended. The teacher would ask you to raise your hand and I’d blurt out an answer and be suspended. If a bully pushed me in class and I pushed back a little bit, I would be the one punished, not him.”
“We were being bullied by a group of boys and it was absolutely racial and the school was unwilling to do anything about it,” Dr. Wood said. “We tried to escape from school on our bikes, but they stole our bikes, dismantled them and left them in the woods.”
When their foster dad went to the school to confront the bullies, teachers and administrators, “the school took out a restraining order forbidding him to come on campus,” recalled Josh Wood, now a public relations consultant in Sacramento. “They told our dad, ‘boys will be boys’.”
Dr. Wood, who was a boy scout for years along the streams and waterfalls of McCloud, spent hundreds of hours at what became known as Luke’s Desk outside the principal’s office reading books about geography and history, writing, fighting feelings of anger and frustration, and formulating a career path devoted to making sure thousands of other Black kids across America wouldn’t have to endure the “distrust, disdain and disregard” he and his brother did.
“The suspensions made me hate school, it felt like school was a waste of time,” Dr. Wood said. “I went from being a top-performing student to a low-performing student. This was not about the other students, it was about the teacher.”
After his year of constant suspensions, he had a White 6th grade teacher, Mr. G, “a teacher with tons of passion, energy, enthusiasm and excitement that made you learn to love school. Mr. G didn’t see me as a troublemaker, he saw me as someone who liked to write, had a lot of talent. He affirmed me in the classroom and sent me to writer’s camps.”
Disproportionate suspensions of Black students, especially in early grades, fuel what’s known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Dr. Wood said. “Unfortunately, Sac City Unified, Elk Grove Unified and Twin Rivers have turned it into an art form. There is absolutely a direct connection between suspensions and the criminal injustice system.” The high rate of Black suspensions — starting from kindergarten to 3rd grade, where youth were suspended at a rate almost 10 times higher than the statewide average — begins to reinforce the view that Black students are less than, caused more trouble, and were less apt to succeed, Dr. Wood said.
The school districts and the Sacramento County Board of Education said they are aware of the problem and have instituted measures to try and reduce the number of Black suspensions. But hiring more Black teachers doesn’t immediately solve the problem, Dr. Wood said.
Students who are suspended at such high rates often come “from families that are torn apart, people who are relying on social services and a generation of people who don’t have economic or social mobility,” Dr. Wood said. Schools need to take all those factors into account.
He’s co-authored 10 studies, 15 books and more than 100 articles focusing on the oppression of Black students due to unfair and unequal suspensions, including “Get Out,” a 2018 study based on reported data, that found Sacramento County had the greatest Black suspension rate in California, and the Sacramento City Unified School District ranked No. 1 out of nearly 1,000 districts. “Sacramento is ground zero when it comes to both total suspensions and suspension rates, it’s by far the most egregious suspension county in California particularly when it comes to Black males,” Dr. Wood said.
Sacramento NAACP chapter president Betty Williams asked Dr. Wood to dive deep into Sacramento County schools. Ms. Williams had become Luke’s champion when he and other students of color faced dismissal at Sac State because they demanded the school hire more administrators of color, he said. “Sac State’s Black male graduation was 4 percent.”
Dr. Wood earned his BA in Black Studies and master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education and College Student Affairs from Sac State, and went on to get his Ph.D. in Higher Education at Arizona State. At San Diego State, he serves as Chief Diversity Officer, Vice President of Student Affairs and the Dean’s Distinguished Professor of Higher Education.
His follow-up study in 2020 based on 2018-2019 data, “The Capital of School Suspensions II,” also zeroes in on SCUSD, although Elk Grove has eclipsed Sac Unified as the district with the highest Black suspension rates statewide, with Sac Unified ranking third behind Fresno Unified. “Led by Sac City and Elk Grove, Black suspensions began to metastasize throughout Sacramento, the Capital of Suspensions.”
While Sacramento County’s overall suspension rate for all students is slightly higher than the statewide average, 18.2 percent of the county’s Black males had been suspended, 5.2 times higher than the statewide average. In the SCUSD, one out of four Black male middle schoolers – 25 percent — had been suspended, while 16.4 percent of Black female middle schoolers had been suspended.
In grades K-3, slightly less than one percent of children statewide had been suspended, but for Black males and females, the rates were 9.4 percent and 3.2 percent, meaning Black children are more than 10 times likely to be suspended than other children in early childhood education.
Data released by the California Department of Education confirms many of Dr. Wood’s findings, according to an analysis by Word In Black data reporter Maya Pottiger, who looked specifically at the suspension numbers reported for Black, Hispanic and white students. The analysis included overall numbers for the Sacramento City Unified School District, Elk Grove Unified School District, Twin Rivers Unified School District and San Juan Unified School District.
In Sacramento County, Black students faced the highest rate of suspensions in all four school districts in both 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. Black students made up roughly 12% of each school’s enrollment but accounted for about 32% of the suspensions. For White and Hispanic students, the margins between those two rates are nowhere near as high.
In the Sacramento City Unified School District, Black students were suspended (12.5%) at roughly five times the rate of White students (2.5%) in both school years, and a little less than three times the rate of Hispanic students (4.4%).
In the Elk Grove Unified School District, Black students were suspended (12.9%) at a little more than four times the rate of White students (3%) in both school years, and about three times the rate of Hispanic students (5%).
In the Twin Rivers Unified School District, Black students were suspended (14.4%) at about two times the rate of White students (7%) each year, and a little less than three times the rate of Hispanic students (5.5%).
In the San Juan Unified School District, Black students were suspended (13%) at a little more than three times the rate of White students (4.1%, and between two-three times the rate of Hispanic students (5%).
In each of the four districts, the rate at which Black students are suspended is more than twice the rate of Hispanic and White students, even though they make up the smallest portion of cumulative enrollment.
Elk Grove has the biggest gap, where Black students make up 11.8% of the cumulative enrollment and 33.3% of total suspensions. Sacramento City is close, with Black students making up 14.1% of enrollment and 38.8% of suspensions, according to the data.
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced students to log in from home rather than interacting with teachers and students in a live school setting, the implicit or explicit bias against Black students didn’t stop, Dr. Wood said.
“We have been collecting data during COVID focused specifically between preschool and 3rd grade and we have over 1,000 narratives from parents across the country on the experiences of their children and micro-aggressions (statements of indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination. We have seen substantial evidence the stresses associated with COVID has created greater levels of bias,” he said.
Even during remote learning, “The number one thing we’ve seen is Black children are ignored in the classroom — during COVID, viewed as lesser than, less important,” Dr. Wood said. “In the Zoom environment, the class experience for Black kids is intensified. We have examples of students still being criminalized.”
“We have experiences from the students who are being yelled at for unmuting their mic when it was not that Black student whose mic was creating disruption, or being left in breakout rooms as a de facto suspension. It’s powerful and very disappointing. Some students have their cameras turned off by teachers.” Dr. Wood added that there are teachers “who act surprised when Black students are intelligent. Even online, the experience of Black students in early education is typified by distrust, assumption of criminality, labelled as hyper physical, bad or defiant.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on Sacramento’s Black student suspension record. Part II: How Districts, Parents and Educators Are Working To Reduce The Egregious Rate of Black Suspensions. Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.