76 Arkansas schools break law, use banned punishment

76 Arkansas schools have punished truant students with out of school suspension, in violation of Act 1329

In 2013, the Arkansas legislature passed Act 1329, making it illegal for schools to punish children who miss school with out of school suspension.

"You have kids that are truant and your discipline for them is to kick them out of school. There's laughter because it is absurd when you think about it," said Education Commissioner Johnny Key.

However, according to school records dating back to 2015, 76 Arkansas schools continue to give truant students out of school suspensions.

Some of those schools are under state control, like Little Rock School District.

Other schools were under state control, like Pulaski County Special School District, during the period that the numbers were reported.

The school districts in violation of the law are scattered around the state, from Bentonville to West Memphis and from Pocahontas to De Queen, with dozens of districts in between.

"In the four years or so that this law has been on the books, we have not been as consistent as we needed to be in communicating the importance of this to districts," acknowledged Commissioner Key.

Act 1329 doesn't dictate any consequences for a district that violates the law, essentially, making enforcement voluntary.

"The law says don't do this, but there is no mechanism by which the Department (of Education) can enforce it," said Key.

The fallout, according to truancy expert Dr. Johanna Thomas, is significant.

"By first grade, we can tell with about 70 percent accuracy whether or not they are going to finish high school," said Dr. Thomas.

A professor at the University of Arkansas, Dr. Thomas researches truancy and has worked in Louisiana to dramatically reduce truancy rates there.

In that state, missing five days of school makes you truant and a social worker begins to intervene. However, that is not the case in Arkansas, and Dr. Thomas says students suffer as a result.

"Once a kid has missed 17, 18 or 19 days of school, to further punish them with a 10-day suspension for not being there pushes them farther and farther behind to the point where many of them are going to drop out," explained Dr. Thomas.

She says teachers often have their hands tied.

"When you've got 30 kids in a classroom there's no time to help another child catch up, so they fall farther and farther behind, and its easier to promote them because they are older rather than their skill. I mean, you don't want a 6th grader in with 3rd graders," said Dr. Thomas. "This is the school to prison pipeline. This is where it breaks down. This is where it happens."

Research shows that early intervention is critical, but looking at the list, Thomas points out the number of elementary and middle schools where truant kids were given out of school suspension. She says at those ages, the problem isn't the student.

"It is single parent households. It's parents working overnight. It is transportation issues, not having busing. It is mental health issues and substance abuse issues. It is usually not about the child as much as it is about a family issue," explained Dr. Thomas.

So what's being done? Commissioner Key says in recent weeks he has informed schools about the law at regional school board meetings.

"So far we haven't encountered any superintendent who has said, 'You know what, I just disagree with this, I'm not going to follow it.' In fact, it's been quite the opposite. It's been, 'Oh wow. We didn't realize it. Makes sense. We want these kids in school. We'll find another way to deal with it'," said Key.

Dr. Thomas says the heart of the problem isn't schools ignoring the law; it runs much deeper and the data can prove it.

On Thursday night, watch part two of this story, as we dig deeper into the data and find children of different races receive very different punishments.

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