Arkansas schools regularly suspend truant children despite ban
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.”
■ 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.