by Tara García Mathewson and Maria Polletta, Center for Public Integrity
This article was originally published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Washington, D.C.
December 8, 2022
PHOENIX — Guadalupe Hernandez’s attendance problems started in kindergarten.
The boy, who has two attention disorders and oppositional defiant disorder, often refused to sit still for circle time. He also experienced separation anxiety while away from his grandmother, Frances Yduarte, who raised him. He’d spend his days distracted from lessons, wishing he was home with her.
Guadalupe started asking Yduarte, whom he calls mama, to let him skip school. Frequently, she did. Eventually, school administrators responded to his absences with punishment: Guadalupe said they gave him an in-school suspension, keeping him away from his classmates for an entire day. The next year, in first grade, he said administrators escalated the punishment to an out-of-school suspension, temporarily barring him from school altogether.
To Yduarte and Guadalupe, the discipline didn’t make any sense. She was struggling to get him to class, and now the school was telling her not to bother.
“They should have talked to me,” said Guadalupe, now 13, “instead of just coming to conclusions and straight up suspending me.”
Suspending students for missing class — whether it’s because they showed up late, cut midday or were absent from school entirely — is a controversial tactic. At least 11 states fully ban the practice, and six more prohibit out-of-school suspensions to some extent for attendance violations.
That leaves schools in much of the country, including Arizona, free to punish most students for missing learning time by forcing them to miss even more. Yet the scope of that practice is largely hidden: The federal government doesn’t collect detailed data on why schools suspend students, and most states don’t, either.
Arizona collects limited discipline data from its districts. But a first-of-its-kind analysis by The Hechinger Report and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting has found that attendance-related suspensions are pervasive, in some districts accounting for more than half of all in-school suspensions.
Hechinger and AZCIR obtained, through public records requests, data from 150-plus districts and charter networks that educate about 61 percent of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students. The majority had suspended students for attendance-related violations, collectively assigning nearly 47,000 suspensions over the past five school years. Of those, 1 in 5 were out-of-school suspensions. Totals for the full public school population are likely much higher, given that almost 250 school systems failed to produce comprehensive data — or any data at all — under Arizona public records law.
Among districts in the Hechinger/AZCIR sample that suspended for attendance, missing class led to 10 percent of all suspensions, resulting in tens of thousands of additional missed days of school. A deeper analysis of 20 districts that provided extensive demographic data revealed Black and Hispanic students frequently received a disproportionate share of these suspensions.
Students may miss class for any number of reasons, including transportation problems, family responsibilities or disengagement from school. Suspending them, experts say, not only fails to remedy these underlying challenges but, as with Guadalupe, can lead to further disengagement and worsen the attendance problems the discipline was meant to address.
Suspensions can also contribute to new problems, such as lower academic performance and higher dropout rates. The consequences can extend beyond high school, researchers have found, with suspensions linked to lower college enrollment rates and increased involvement with the criminal justice system. Nationwide, critics of the punishment cite missed class time as a key problem with it, and the U.S. Department of Education now tracks days lost to out-of-school suspensions.
“If a child is struggling to get to school or class and this is the issue, then removing them from the place that we want them to be is really counterintuitive,” said Anna Warmbrand, director of student relations for Tucson Unified School District, where district policy prohibits out-of-school suspensions for attendance violations alone.
But many districts continue to suspend kids for missing school, not just for dayslong absences but also for showing up a few minutes late to class, the 11-month Hechinger/AZCIR investigation found. In conversations with more than 75 students in two Arizona districts that frequently suspend for attendance violations, kids described how administrators mete out the punishment routinely.
Richie Taylor, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education, noted that state statute generally allows school boards to set their own rules when it comes to discipline. But after reviewing preliminary Hechinger/AZCIR findings, he suggested it may be time to examine what he called “state policies, or lack thereof, that lead to overly punitive disciplinary actions related to attendance and result in more time spent by students out of the classroom.”
“If the past few years have taught us anything,” Taylor said of the pandemic and its aftermath, “it is that regular in-person learning is critical to a student’s academic success.”
‘I wasn’t getting much help’
For years, it was a battle getting Guadalupe to his Phoenix elementary school in the Washington Elementary School District. Yduarte said she would wake him up, pull the blankets off him and tell him it was time to go. Sometimes, he’d negotiate: “I’ll go at 10,” or “I’ll go at lunchtime.” Sometimes, he’d plead: “Get me out early, mama — please, please get me out early.” Other times, he’d just lie there in silence.
“That was a daily thing for him,” Yduarte said.
Guadalupe missed so much school that, when he did show up, he couldn’t follow what was happening in class.
“Most of the things that we were learning, I didn’t understand, and I wasn’t getting much help,” Guadalupe said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable coming to school anymore.”
Guadalupe remembers a two-day out-of-school suspension in first grade. It was the first time the school had punished him by forcing him to stay home, he said. He was chastened for a day, returning to school as instructed when his suspension was over. But the effect didn’t last. He didn’t go the following day. The suspension, he said, made him want to go to school even less.
The district declined to comment on his case, citing federal student privacy laws, but a spokesperson, Pam Horton, said it generally does not suspend students for attendance violations. Data provided by the district shows that it has, however, issued suspensions for attendance issues — at least 650 over the past four school years.
Under Arizona law, students are considered truant if they miss at least one class period without a valid excuse. The law defines excessive absences as missing 10 percent of school days or more, a level more widely referred to as chronic absenteeism. State statute allows districts to set their own punishments for missing school and suggests a range of consequences for chronically absent students, including failing a subject, failing a grade level, suspension and expulsion.
Districts and charters use a mix of approaches to address absenteeism, the Hechinger/AZCIR investigation found, including warnings, parent conferences, detentions, in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions. In a relatively small portion of cases, schools refer kids who are frequently absent to the courts for truancy, which can lead to criminal charges for children or their guardians.
Strategies for combating absenteeism can vary within a single school system. Several administrators contacted for this story said they did not realize how often certain schools in their districts were suspending kids for attendance violations.
Arizona places pressure on schools to reduce chronic absenteeism, evaluating elementary and middle schools in part on the number of their students who miss at least 10 percent of school days. In fact, most states now expect districts to pay attention to this issue, informed by research that says an average of two absences per month can create a tipping point in early literacy, performance on standardized tests and dropout rates. But the Hechinger/AZCIR analysis indicates suspensions in many Arizona districts are compounding an absenteeism problem already exacerbated by the pandemic.
“It doesn’t make sense to punish someone for attendance by sending them home.”
Ernest Rose, superintendent, Wilson Elementary School District
Colorado River Union High School District, near the Nevada border, is among the most punitive districts in the Hechinger/AZCIR sample. It serves fewer than 2,000 students but assigned 351 out-of-school suspensions for attendance-related violations over the past five school years. Most of those suspensions happened at Mohave High School.
Principal Gina Covert said the school has a homeless liaison and a psychologist intended to help students overcome barriers to their attendance, but “there are times when consequences have to happen.”
For the first few weeks of this school year, teachers and administrators were relatively lenient, she said, explaining school rules and guiding students who tested those rules back to class. But by late August, Covert said students without a hall pass received a suspension.
“We’ve been training them now for five weeks,” she said at the time. “They need to be where they’re supposed to be.”
Lucky Arvizo is principal of Somerton High School in the Yuma Union High School District, which serves about 11,000 students and handed out 535 attendance-related out-of-school suspensionsover the past five years — one of only three districts issuing more of these suspensions than Covert’s. He described a similar policy of gradually escalating discipline and said he considers suspension in response to poor attendance a last resort.
“But when it does happen, the student thinks, ‘Oh, wow, this is more serious than I thought.’ And that behavior changes,” Arvizo said.
Several current and former school officials disagree. During a suspension, they said, students don’t get support to change bad habits, and they don’t get help with barriers that might keep them from school, such as family and work commitments. Suspensions similarly fail to address school-based issues that can contribute to poor attendance, like bullying or academic troubles.
Limited research exists on whether suspensions are an effective strategy for discouraging absenteeism. One study found that while kids who received out-of-school suspensions for truancy were less likely to be truant again in the short term, repeated use of suspensions actually led to greater absenteeism in the long term.
That absenteeism can have lasting consequences: Missing just two days of school per month has been tied to lower reading proficiency in third grade, lower math scores in middle school and higher dropout rates in high school. Meanwhile, the growing body of research on suspensions more generally shows they harm kids and their learning, leading to growing calls to address misbehavior in ways that keep students in class.
Terri Martinez-McGraw, executive director of the National Center for School Engagement, says suspensions are counterproductive. Her group counsels schools to address absenteeism with problem-solving, working with students to identify exactly why they’re missing school and addressing those root causes.
“Our kids have the answer,” Martinez-McGraw said. “If we sit down and talk to them about their behavior, they’re going to let us know the whys and the whats and how we can get that behavior changed.”
In Guadalupe’s case, suspensions added to his time out of class, while doing nothing to change his academic trajectory.
Yduarte said Guadalupe was consistently failing all his classes. He struggled to read and do grade-level math and couldn’t follow what was being taught in science and social studies.
Yduarte said she tried to convince the school to give him extra services to help him control his behavior and catch up on his work, but the help was intermittent. When he was given more one-on-one attention, he would go to school more willingly, she said. But when he didn’t get that extra help, he’d go back to begging to stay home.
“What they never understood,” Yduarte said, “was because he hadn’t been in school for so long, he didn’t know what was going on at school, he didn’t know his work, and there was nobody there to help him with it.”
Thousands of attendance-related suspensions
Dysart Unified School District serves about 23,000 students across 140 square miles of Maricopa County, its sprawling campuses dotting the dry valley terrain. The district handed out nearly 12,000 attendance-related suspensions over the five-year period reviewed.
During the 2018-19 school year, the last full year before COVID, Dysart suspended students nearly 3,500 times for being late to class. During the roller coaster of 2020-21, school leaders suspended students more than 1,000 times for being late, according to the district’s data. In total, over the past five years,nearly 60 percent of all in-school suspensions in the district were for attendance violations. (This includes single-period or half-day suspensions.)
It’s not hard to find Dysart High School students who’ve been suspended for being late. Most students have six classes each day, 180 days of the year, providing more than 1,000 chances to rack up a tardy. School policy indicates six tardies lead to a one-day in-school suspension. Three more lead to a three-day stint in the suspension room, where students are expected to stay quiet. They can work on assignments or, as one sophomore put it, stare at a wall.
Five Dysart students who had been suspended for being late to class said various circumstances contributed to their tardiness. One said she was suspended when her school bus arrived late, while two others were suspended after relatives dropped them off after the bell. Two more students said they overslept or lost track of time. A sixth said her friend was suspended for missing class while in the school bathroom dealing with her menstrual cycle. She had blood on her clothes and spent unexcused time cleaning herself up.
Another student, whose name is being withheld due to privacy concerns, described the school’s suspension policy for tardiness as “stupid.”
“If you’re late in one class, and it’s repeated,” she said, “I feel like they shouldn’t take your learning away from your other classes, because then you’ll fall behind.”
District officials said they could not comment on individual suspensions. But Renee Ryon, Dysart Unified’s director of communications, said students would only get suspended after a late bus arrival if they didn’t “promptly report to class.” And she defended the district’s suspension policy for repeated tardies.
“While it may seem odd to take students out of class in response to attendance issues, it is important to remember that it is also a safety issue if students aren’t where they should be during class time,” Ryon said. “We take safety very seriously and must be able to account for each student throughout the day.”
Still, advocates say schools should address the root causes of absenteeism rather than resort to disciplinary action. Hedy Chang, founder and executive director of the national nonprofit Attendance Works, urges schools to identify the barriers keeping students from class — including transportation issues, family instability, bullying, mental health problems and academic struggles — and offer solutions like bus passes, counseling, tutoring and other support to reengage students and keep them in class.
Students simply can’t benefit from instruction and opportunities in the classroom, Chang said, if they’re not there.
DaMarion Green, 16, said he has gotten approximately four in-school suspensions for arriving late to first period, all at Dysart High School, where he is a sophomore. Each time, he slipped behind in his classes without access to his teachers.
“That’s the whole point of a teacher, is to give you help,” DaMarion said. In the suspension room, he said, he couldn’t ask any questions. “They just want you to be quiet.”
‘Clearly detrimental to the students’
Though Arizona largely leaves disciplinary policy decisions to districts and charters, state legislators can, and do, intervene when they want to ban or limit certain punitive practices.
By the start of the 2021-22 school year, for example, lawmakers had stepped in to stop schools from suspending kids in kindergarten through fourth grade for all but the most serious disciplinary infractions — a move that should have indirectly eliminated attendance-related suspensions for the state’s youngest learners. But the law did not establish a state-level process for enforcement.
Indeed, the Hechinger/AZCIR analysis suggests some districts may be flouting it. Phoenix-based Wilson Elementary School District, for instance, assigned eight out-of-school suspensions and 26 in-school suspensions to its youngest students for missing school between September and December of 2021, according to its own records. (Only a handful of districts provided discipline data to The Hechinger Report and AZCIR in a format that tracked student grade level along with suspension type.)
Superintendent Ernest Rose, who moved to Wilson from Tucson Unified in 2021, doesn’t defend the suspensions. After noticing an overreliance on suspensions in general, he said, he introduced a new code of conduct in January that discourages suspending kids for attendance violations, among other changes.
“It doesn’t make sense to punish someone for attendance by sending them home,” Rose said, adding that the change required a shift in mindset among district staff.
Darrell Hill, policy director for the ACLU of Arizona, said advocates previously pushed for legislation explicitly targeting schools’ ability to suspend students because of excessive or unexcused absences, but conversations stalled. And while he still supports a law to end the practice, he also wants policymakers to give educators and administrators more resources to help struggling students.
“Schools haven’t been equipped to deal with these issues in any way but a suspension or expulsion,” Hill said. “So … they rely on exclusionary discipline even when it is clearly detrimental to the students they’re serving.”
In Guadalupe’s case, his attendance issues led to even more extreme consequences. While Yduarte said she remains his legal guardian, Guadalupe now lives with a foster family southeast of Phoenix. He was placed in foster care in large part due to his many absences from school while living with Yduarte. But the move came with a bevy of supports.
At his new public school in Chandler, Guadalupe said he gets counseling and after-school tutoring, and his doctors have finally settled on medication that helps him control his behavior disorders. He qualified for special education services shortly before moving, and the new supports have contributed to a turnaround: Guadalupe said he feels caught up academically, and he goes to school consistently.
Both Guadalupe and Yduarte hope the boy will soon be able to move back home.
Yduarte has a nagging worry that if he ends up in another school that responds to absenteeism with suspensions rather than supports, he’ll get off track again. But Guadalupe assures her he’ll be able to maintain his momentum at any school.
Yduarte remains cautious: “You’ll try.”
Fazil Khan contributed data analysis to this report.