A month into kindergarten, Bryan Russert-Bishop, 5, kicked a kid in the groin—already his third outburst.
He started misbehaving soon after starting Rangeland Elementary School—screaming, crying, throwing crayons, according to school referrals provided by his family. He even threatened to stab another kid with scissors. Notes were sent home; the school requested that the child, whose family calls "Kenny-man," get a behavioral assessment.
That led to confusion, and he missed a week of school.
“I’d say, ‘Why are you doing that.’ And he’d say, ‘I want to live with my daddy,’” says Gloria Chatmond, the grandmother and the kids' caretaker at the time.
Jefferson County Public Schools has 12,000 homeless students. Kenny-man meets the criteria because he was homeless at the beginning of the school year. Yet homelessness was only part of the issue that led to his poor start to 13 years of public education.
For kids like Kenny-man, Louisville educators and social service leaders argue that counseling and programs, with better coordination, can help.
But what if the parents don’t think of their children as being at risk?
Bryan Bishop and his son Bryan "Kenny-man" Russert-Bishop outside their Hikes Point home. (Angela Shoemaker/WFPL News)
Now, Kenny-man and his sister Bryana, 7, attend Klondike Elementary School about a half-mile from their apartment in Hikes Point.
Until recently, the family lived in Wayside Christian Mission’s shelter.
Bryan Bishop, their father, says they lived in the shelter because Melisa Russert, the mom, was on the streets.
Melisa, 35, has on-going issues with drugs—and the law. She works as a stripper.
Bryan lets her live with him and the kids, but you might also find her living in-and-out of Louisville motels. (She says she’s been to most of them.) Melisa’s also been kicked out of several “homes,” including Wayside.
"I just wanted to be near them," Melisa says of her children. "I slept in the car outside their window."
Melisa Russert detoxing at home. (Devin Katayama/WFPL News)
Wrapped in a blanket—cold and detoxing—she tells me she’s sorry her kids have to witness this. Her commitment to them is difficult to gauge (the addiction plays a role), but Melisa repeatedly says they are her motivation for getting clean.
In the meantime, the kids suffer.
There’s plenty of research that suggests stress—like from a disruptive home life—increases the chances that kids will have trouble in school, that they'll misbehave, or even that they'll be physically unhealthy.
For these reasons—and for their wayward lives so far—Kenny-man and Bryana are at-risk students.
Louisville’s challenge is finding the appropriate time where interventions can precede damage caused by stress or trauma, before it’s too late. Or ways to change habits that result from stress. That’s a difficult task.
The family moved from the shelter to their current apartment in Hikes Point in October. Bryan is just scraping by, and often fixes his own apartment to save on rent. The place is furnished with found, salvaged and donated furniture, and some nice artwork hangs on the wall. A large flat-screen TV with surround sound is the living’s centerpiece.
The apartment gets crowded. Sometimes Bryan’s girlfriend stays over too. Once, I hear Kenny-man call her “mom.”
Kenny-man with his father's girlfriend, Levinda. (Angela Shoemaker/WFPL News)
Since Melisa lost custody of the kids, it’s Bryan’s choice to let her stay. And Bryan doesn’t want to put her out, though he won’t hesitate to threaten the idea. But the kids have seen things both parents say they shouldn’t.
“She does drugs,” Kenny-man tells me.
How do you know that?
“Because she is bad.”
What else about her?
“She uses my daddy’s phone for calling bad people. Calling the police on my dad when he doesn’t do anything wrong.”
What do you like about your mom?
“Nothing,” Kenny-man says, laughing.
Bryana also acknowledges her mom does drugs. But neither kid mentions anything bad about their father, who in the past has been arrested for possession of marijuana and who admits he sold pot—he says to provide for his family.
Notes for Kenny-man. (Angela Shoemaker/WFPL News)
The kids are attached to Bryan, though he says he struggles with single parenthood. Bryan, 52, has eight children, six of whom are high school graduates—Bryana and Kenny-man are hopeful. A couple of his children went to college. But they had stronger mother figures than Melisa, he says.
Bryan also has his mother, who cared for the kids for three years, including when they started school last fall, she says. Gloria ran a tight ship with Bryana and Kenny-man, just like when Bryan was a kid. Dinner was at five o’clock and the kids knew what time lunch was.
“I’ve sat back and looked at them when they’re with him and it’s a whole different thing,” says Gloria.
Dinner with dad isn’t always healthy—or on time. Snacks are often chips and soda. But Bryan thinks of himself as an average parent. He doesn’t consider Kenny-man and Bryana to be at risk.
But despite the healthier lifestyle Gloria provided, within the first few weeks of kindergarten, Kenny-man got in trouble. Ultimately, he was required to have a behavioral assessment at the Office of Safety and Drug-Free Schools.
“I wish more people knew what we did,” director Jackie Wisman says.
The center is a major entry point for the school district to connect with families and struggling students, but Wisman wonders whether enough teachers know what his office does. Previously a teacher, even he was unsure before taking on the role, he says.
There are a number of things a school can do when a child misbehaves. Sometimes it’s a suspension, which happened about 13,000 times last school year. Students who are suspended at least once are twice as likely to drop out, according to district officials.
So suspension is a last resort.
Kids can also be sent downtown for a behavioral assessment. The Office of Safety and Drug-Free Schools hosts about 10,000 students and families annually, Wisman says.
The assessment center recommends services that students and their families may benefit from—such as therapy from Seven Counties Services—but whether families follow those recommendations is up to them.
In February, Bryan and the kids pick their mom up from jail in downtown Louisville. Bryan takes a shaky video on his cell phone. The kids in the picture don’t show much emotion; when I ask Kenny-man later, he says it was “boring.”
Police accused Melisa of stealing prescription medication. It’s a claim both Bryan and Melisa say is untrue, but it led to more problems.
While on house arrest, she’s forced to clear out her locker at the Bottom’s Up strip club where she worked. At the bottom of the bag she finds her life savings—$620.
“It’s not that much,” she says.
Melisa says she needs to find a job that’ll keep her out of trouble, but she decides to go back to stripping because it’s easy money.
It’s also all she knows, she says.
“When I go try to get a job at 34, all I can say is that I’ve been at home with my kids not doing anything,” she says. "What am I going to do, just lie? Make up a whole fake resume and hope that they believe it?”
Melisa started stripping at age 18, but she was given drugs by her father even earlier, she says. She also claims abuse. But despite all that, she had dreams of being in the Olympics as a child and was involved in tap, ballet and gymnastics.
Instead, she ended up hooked on heroin.
When I ask Bryan, he says Melisa’s addiction is an old story. When I ask her about getting clean and whether she’s reached out to any programs for help, she says it’s something she’s done before.
“Did I choose to quit? No,” she says. “But when you do decide to quit, all that stuff is helpful when you do decide. So none of it was wasteful.”
Some economists, such as the University of Chicago’s James Heckman, say rehab and job training programs aren’t the best investments in human capital that societies can make. Instead, Heckman suggests spending money on quality early childhood programs—giving kids like Bryana and Kenny-man the support they may need earlier.
Kenny-man playing at home. (Angela Shoemaker/WFPL News)
But it’s tricky, because Bryan says his kids don’t need help. Instead, he insists that teaching his kids resourcefulness—a life he’s led—is the most important tool. Bryan talks about self-employment and self-reliance, and he’s protective of Bryana when she tries branching out into programs like Girl Scouts.
Other programs, which are often free or cheap, help parents improve their skills and relationships with their children. Many of these programs have been successful, but most of those who attend are either court ordered or pressured into them.
Bryan and Melisa aren’t interested in these programs.
Their relationship is unhealthy. Bryan worries about her influence on the kids. Melisa says she plans to leave someday, and she wants to take the kids with her. But custody is an issue.
For the two kids, who they become will be shaped in part by their lives now. A lot of that will depend on home, research says. But schools and communities are challenged with finding ways to become better partners with parents like Bryan, who doesn’t seem interested in getting help or changing.
He points to his other daughters’ success. Plus, Bryana appears to do well in school. She likes to read and plays “school” in her room, Bryan says.
Kenny-man and Bryana on their front stoop. (Angela Shoemaker/WFPL News)
But kids’ situation can change.
Bryan says he checked his bank account recently. It was in the negative. He says the $721 Social Security checks he receives aren’t cutting it for rent and other expenses. But he’s always done whatever is needed to provide for the family.
One night, Bryan holds a small stack of lottery tickets in his hand. He scratches off to see if he’s a winner.
“If I do win man, you know what I’d do? Buy me a big-ass building and put my whole family in it,” he tells me.
Bryan wins $6.
“I’m going to save that for a rainy day,” he says.