This story about attendance-violation discipline was produced by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to statewide, data-driven investigative reporting, and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the AZCIR newsletter and the Hechinger newsletter.

A bill that would have stopped Arizona schools from issuing out-of-school suspensions to students who miss class failed to make it out of the Legislature this year, despite bipartisan support. 

Rep. Laura Terech, a Democrat, crafted House Bill 2748 in response to a nearly yearlong investigation by AZCIR and The Hechinger Report, which revealed for the first time the scope of the controversial disciplinary practice of suspending Arizona students for tardiness and truancy. 

The Hechinger/AZCIR analysis — which relied on data from 150-plus districts and charter networks that enroll about 61 percent of the state’s public school students — identified more than 47,000 suspensions for attendance violations over a five-year period. Students reported feeling even more disengaged and academically lost after serving these suspensions. Black, Latino and Native American students received a disproportionate share of the punishments.

“Being an educator in the field, you often see that students are not coming to school for a variety of reasons. Maybe they have to watch younger siblings at home, or there’s something happening at school — there’s a bullying issue or they’re particularly stressed out about one of their classes,” Terech, a former elementary school teacher, told lawmakers at a House Education Committee hearing this year. 

Rather than suspending students, Terech said she believes such problems “are better addressed through working with the student, supporting the student, learning what they need so we can keep them in school.”

Terech found a handful of allies across the aisle: Republican Sen. John Kavanagh, for instance, told AZCIR he signed on as a bill cosponsor because he found blocking students from class for missing class “ridiculous on its face.” But Republican leadership never brought the measure to the House floor for a vote, after other members of the party expressed concern that lawmakers would be removing a tool schools rely on to give parents a “wake-up call.” Terech has vowed to revive it next year.

The debate comes as the larger issue of keeping students in school is receiving renewed attention statewide. Read On Arizona convened a task force this spring to address a spike in chronic absenteeism, which state law defines as students missing more than 10 percent, or about 18 days, of school in an academic year. 

Chronic absence has long been an issue in Arizona, but the pandemic led to dramatic increases across the state. According to data from the Arizona Department of Education, 14 percent of K-12 students were chronically absent in 2019. By 2022, that portion had jumped to 34 percent, and some schools responded to the rising absenteeism with even more attendance-related suspensions, the AZCIR/Hechinger investigation found.

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The Read On Arizona task force brings together members of the governor’s office, school districts, state agencies, community organizations and the Legislature. Together, they will parse state and local data about attendance, chronic absenteeism and student performance, gather advice from national experts and develop recommendations and resources to help school districts prevent continued absenteeism. 

Members of the task force say the AZCIR/Hechinger investigation illuminated the connection between suspensions and absenteeism in Arizona, something that had never before been made public. A key idea discussed at the group’s first meeting was the need to move away from punitive responses to absenteeism and instead focus on supports. 

“We have the right players at the right table at the right time to begin to have that conversation,” said Read On Arizona’s Lori Masseur, who is overseeing the task force.

The shift away from punishing absenteeism has already begun at the local level. The Valley of the Sun United Way has helped districts in Maricopa County address chronic absenteeism for several years, focusing on supportive approaches that address the reasons students miss school as part of a wider effort to meet students’ social-emotional needs. 

The organization will expand this work in the coming years, and Read On Arizona will launch its own professional development for schools, in collaboration with the national nonprofit Attendance Works. Both efforts aim to help teachers and school leaders move away from punitive responses to absenteeism.

Dawn Gerundo, community development and engagement director for education at the Valley of the Sun United Way, said avoiding suspensions as a response to absenteeism is a central recommendation. A growing body of research has tied missing just two days of school per month to concrete consequences, including lower reading proficiency in third grade, lower math scores in middle school and higher dropout rates in high school.

“Suspensions are absenteeism,” Gerundo said. “If a student is suspended, they are absent.”

“Suspensions are absenteeism. If a student is suspended, they are absent.”

Dawn Gerundo, Valley of the sun united way

Among districts in the AZCIR/Hechinger 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. Students served about 1 in 5 of those suspensions out of school, which the U.S. departments of Justice and Education highlighted as particularly concerning.

Presented with the findings last fall, then-Arizona Department of Education spokesman Richie Taylor suggested the state should reexamine its policies around discipline for attendance-related issues.

But that was before the state superintendent’s office changed hands, coming under the direction of Republican Tom Horne in January. Though Horne’s opinion on the prospective legislation is unclear — his administration declined to comment to “respect the legislative process” — he historically has supported schools taking a hard-line approach to discipline.

If Arizona lawmakers move to ban suspensions for absenteeism next year, the state would join at least 17 others that have already limited or removed school districts’ ability to punish attendance issues with suspensions. 

Though school districts across the state largely declined to take a position on the proposed ban, some educators told AZCIR they felt attendance-related suspensions had a place as a “last resort.”

In Yuma Union High School District, spokesman and former teacher Eric Patten said that in cases where “the communication is there about what’s going on” — such as when barriers to attendance or punctuality include students working to support their families or being responsible for younger siblings — staff “can work on a solution rather than a suspension.” 

But when parents haven’t been responsive to phone calls, emails or home visits, officials may turn to out-of-school suspensions to jolt them into action. Yuma Union was among the five districts that issued out-of-school suspensions for attendance problems most frequently over the five years reviewed by AZCIR and The Hechinger Report.

“Sometimes, the suspension will actually get their attention, bring them to the table,” Patten said. “And that, I think, would be a justification or at least the reason for some of these suspensions in those cases.”

“Sometimes, the suspension will actually get their attention, bring them to the table. And that, I think, would be a justification or at least the reason for some of these suspensions in those cases.”

Eric Patten, Yuma Union High School District spokesman

School officials elsewhere in the state disagreed. Interviews with those administrators pointed to an appetite for state leaders to intervene to limit attendance-related suspensions, something Lupita Hightower, Arizona’s Superintendent of the Year and head of the Tolleson Elementary School District, acknowledged as unusual. 

Hightower, whose district issued just three out-of-school suspensions for attendance from 2017-22, is among those willing to give up some local control of student discipline to support a statewide ban on suspensions for tardiness and truancy, which can push students over the chronic absenteeism threshold.

“If we’re contributing to that problem as administrators, that’s not good for kids,” she said. “If it has to be legislated, I would agree with that.”

For Ernest Rose, superintendent of the Phoenix-based Wilson Elementary District, the issue is similarly cut and dry. During suspensions, 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 or school-based bullying.

“I don’t want to say it’s common sense, because if it was common sense, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Rose said. But “when we’re looking at overall academic attainment of our students, if they’re not in school, then they’re not able to partake in the instruction.”

Early last year, after noticing what he described as an overreliance on suspensions in general, Rose introduced a new code of conduct that discourages attendance-related suspensions. The Wilson district had issued 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 AZCIR/Hechinger data.

Rose noted the district continues to employ in-school suspensions in certain cases when ongoing attendance issues “escalate.” But he supports Arizona eliminating out-of-school suspensions for attendance problems. 

Even when students are habitually truant, he believes educators’ focus should be on bringing those students back into the fold rather than issuing blanket punishments. “To suspend them defeats the purpose,” he said.

Terech cited the same logic in discussing her plans to revive her bill next session.

“Yes, it’s a tool,” she said of attendance-related suspensions. “But it’s not a good one.”

related: education suspended — blocked from class for missing class

Suspending students for absences, tardies compounds learning loss

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 17 states forbid schools from suspending students for attendance problems at some level—if kids aren’t in class, they aren’t learning. Yet the practice is pervasive in Arizona, a first-of-its-kind…

Overrepresentation of Black, Hispanic students among those suspended for missing school could violate civil rights law

A first-of-its-kind analysis of education data shows that Black, Latino and Native American students are frequently overrepresented among those blocked from class for missing class — what some argue is evidence of a potential civil rights violation. White students, meanwhile, were largely underrepresented.

In wake of pandemic, some districts take less-punitive approach to absenteeism

Though suspending students for attendance violations is widespread in Arizona, it is not universal—or necessary, according to school and district leaders who have found ways around it. They argue effective alternatives must make school a place students want to be, and treat absenteeism as a problem to solve, rather than a behavior to punish.

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Maria Polletta is an investigative reporter for AZCIR focused on covering inequities in education.

Tara García Mathewson covers inequality in K-12 education, nationally, for The Hechinger Report and she oversees coverage for Hechinger en Español as the languages editor.