Arkansas schools reg­u­larly sus­pend tru­ant chil­dren de­spite ban

Texarkana Gazette - - METRO/STATE - By Han­nah Graben­stein

LIT­TLE ROCK—Five years af­ter Arkansas banned the use of out-of-school sus­pen­sion as a pun­ish­ment for tru­ancy, dozens of schools are still sus­pend­ing chil­dren who re­peat­edly miss classes.

A study last month out of the Of­fice for Ed­u­ca­tion Pol­icy at the Univer­sity of Arkansas found that many schools are still rou­tinely pun­ish­ing stu­dents who aren’t in school by forc­ing them to miss more in­struc­tion time. More than 1,000 stu­dents were sus­pended for tru­ancy dur­ing the 20162017 school year, the study found.

Data in­di­cate that sus­pen­sions neg­a­tively im­pact stu­dents’ aca­demic suc­cess, and school ad­min­is­tra­tors gen­er­ally agree that the prac­tice of sus­pend­ing tru­ants is counter-pro­duc­tive. District of­fi­cials of­fered var­i­ous rea­sons for why the prac­tice per­sists, but all agreed that it shouldn’t be hap­pen­ing.

“That’s not what we should be do­ing,” Lit­tle Rock School District Su­per­in­ten­dent Michael Poore said. “We don’t want to sus­pend kids for tru­ancy be­cause it’s a self-ful­fill­ing prophecy of ad­di­tional time away from the class­room.”

Be­cause there’s no lan­guage in the law that spec­i­fies which state agency is re­spon­si­ble for its en­force­ment, the Arkansas De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion says the law has essen­tially gone un­en­forced since its pas­sage.

State Sen. Joyce El­liott, a Demo­crat who co-spon­sored the leg­is­la­tion, said she was frus­trated. “I don’t know what hap­pened in the in­terim. There was a ball dropped, there is no ques­tion about that,” El­liott said. “It’s so dis­ap­point­ing.”

A district that in­ten­tion­ally vi­o­lated the law could be in vi­o­la­tion of Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment stan­dards po­lices, agency spokes­woman Kim­berly Fried­man said, though she noted the de­part­ment is not an en­forcer of the law. Un­less the Leg­is­la­ture amends the law to add spe­cific en­force­ment, Fried­man said, “the best we can do is pro­vide sup­port to these dis­tricts.”

Fried­man also said she be­lieved there’s a need for the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment to in­crease aware­ness of the law with non­com­pli­ant dis­tricts and school boards.

Many ad­min­is­tra­tors in­ter­viewed by The As­so­ci­ated Press said they knew of the law, but seemed un­clear about what in­frac­tions are con­sid­ered tru­ancy and whether those in­frac­tions were sub­ject to the ban on out-of-school sus­pen­sion.

One is­sue is that while the law’s lan­guage specif­i­cally refers to “tru­ancy,” the state has no def­i­ni­tion for the in­frac­tion. Some dis­tricts will not use sus­pen­sions to pun­ish stu­dents who miss full days of school, but they will use that pun­ish­ment for stu­dents who are re­peat­edly tardy or leave class early. Yet those stu­dents may still be coded as tru­ant, and thus show up in data as stu­dents sus­pended for tru­ancy, ac­cord­ing to Mike Her­nan­dez with the Arkansas Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment. Dis­tricts also may use sus­pen­sions to pun­ish tru­ant stu­dents who don’t fol­low through on the ini­tial pun­ish­ment they re­ceive for tru­ancy.

Fried­man said the de­part­ment is hold­ing re­gional meet­ings with ad­min­is­tra­tors and lo­cal school boards to clar­ify the law and will send let­ters to non­com­pli­ant dis­tricts. But the agency also said it does not in­tend to de­fine tru­ancy.

El­liott said the Leg­is­la­ture may have to do that.

“It would be proper to cre­ate a def­i­ni­tion that would be en­forced in a con­sis­tent way,” El­liott said. “We don’t pick and choose what kids across the state we want to have in school.”

Kaitlin An­der­son, who au­thored the study, said even if ad­min­is­tra­tors are con­fused about what is con­sid­ered tru­ant, schools are still pun­ish­ing stu­dents who have missed school by sus­pend­ing them fur­ther. Us­ing district-re­ported state data, An­der­son an­a­lyzed schools that had at least five cases of tru­ancy. She found that dur­ing the 2016-2017 school year, 76 such schools used out-of-school sus­pen­sion as a con­se­quence for at least 10 per­cent of their tru­ancy cases.

In the Lit­tle Rock School District, that data showed nine schools sus­pended 100 per­cent of their tru­ant stu­dents. Both district and state of­fi­cials sug­gested re­port­ing er­rors may be to blame.

One district that has strug­gled with the is­sue is the Pu­laski County Spe­cial School District. Eight Pu­laski County schools sus­pended at least 10 per­cent of the chil­dren it coded as tru­ant in 2016-2017, ac­cord­ing to An­der­son’s study. At Wil­bur D. Mills High School, 69 chil­dren were sus­pended for tru­ancy.

Sher­man Whit­field, direc­tor of peo­ple ser­vices in the district, said that af­ter learn­ing of the prob­lem, he has met with prin­ci­pals to re­in­force the pol­icy.

Wat­son Chapel Su­per­in­ten­dent Jerry Guess, who was su­per­in­ten­dent of Pu­laski County Spe­cial School District from 2011 through 2017, said he was un­aware of the ban. But Guess said he had none­the­less been work­ing to im­press upon school ad­min­is­tra­tors the im­por­tance of keep­ing chil­dren in schools.

He called it “con­tra­dic­tory” to sus­pend stu­dents for miss­ing school and said the prac­tice “vir­tu­ally en­sures kids are not go­ing to do well.”

Danny John­ston/ As­so­ci­ated Press, File

■ Two stu­dents walk Jan. 13, 2014, in a hall­way at Lit­tle Rock Cen­tral High School in Lit­tle Rock. Dozens of Arkansas schools have con­tin­ued to sus­pend chil­dren who re­peat­edly miss classes five years af­ter the state banned the use of out-of-school sus­pen­sion as a pun­ish­ment for tru­ancy. Be­cause there’s no lan­guage in the law that spec­i­fies which state agency is re­spon­si­ble for its en­force­ment, it has essen­tially gone un­en­forced since its pas­sage in 2013.

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