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I-TEAM | Lost on the faultline: The invisible children

Published: May. 23, 2022 at 6:12 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) – The I-TEAM uncovered nearly 3,000 students in the Richmond County School System are unaccounted for this school year.

Our eight-month investigation found the school district coding missing children as transfers or homeschool without any proof they are in school somewhere else.

Seniors will begin walking across stages throughout Richmond County beginning Tuesday. The Class of 2022 faced unprecedented challenges to stay in school. Many of their classmates disappeared over the pandemic.

EARLIER COVERAGE:

Early studies show the number of chronically absent students has tripled across the country. The rates are even higher for vulnerable populations like most of the students in Richmond County.

The I-TEAM began questioning after the district told us they had about 900 students missing from the classroom at the beginning of the school year. We partnered with the USC Annenberg Health Data Fellowship eight months ago to find out why the numbers didn’t seem to add up.

The I-TEAM’s Liz Owens found Alessia inside her broken-down SUV, where she was living with her children in January. The single mother of four struggled to get her eldest son to school.

“Why did he miss last week?” Owens asked.

“I had no way to take him,” Alessia said.

Alessia’s friend made calls herself to help her friend find housing and her son a ride to school.

“How would you describe the system?” she was asked.

“It’s completely flawed. … It’s failing families that really need help,” she said.

The I-TEAM uncovered not dozens or hundreds but thousands of unaccounted for students missing from Richmond County classrooms this school year.

“I was basically shocked that the amount of children that are missing in the system,” school board member Dr. Wayne Frazier reacted after reviewing the I-TEAM’s findings within the district’s data.

The I-TEAM first began asking questions about missing and homeless students eight months ago. We filed open records requests but the data the school district provided us didn’t seem to add up.

Here’s why: The school system reported the number of homeless students decreased by more than 65% at a time when the homeless population in the county was skyrocketing by more than 150%. The district also told the I-TEAM there were 900 students unaccounted for, but we found that number is much, much higher.

The Richmond County School System’s method of tracking students is a maze of confusion. The Georgia Department of Education uses a coding system to track students exiting the classroom. School systems enter one of these codes to explain why a student is no longer in class.

Some codes like the one for low grades can affect dropout and graduation rates.

The state requires students to be coded as unknown until a district receives proof of enrollment like a transcript request for a transfer student or a declaration of intent for a homeschooling student.

The I-TEAM looked at every code assigned to students who either didn’t show up on the first day of class or stopped coming to class during the school year. We found nearly 3,000 students lacking the required documentation or verification to prove they left the district for another school.

That’s nearly 3,000 kids unaccounted for, coded as if they’re receiving an education somewhere else. That’s almost 3,000 Richmond County students the district never followed up with to make sure they are in school anywhere.

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The data specialist wouldn’t answer our questions on camera but a district spokesperson did meet with us.

“Do you guys understand the process ... seems to be like either it’s being ignored or you guys are confused by it?” district spokesperson Lynthia Ross was asked.

“We have been following the state’s process as outlined in the law,” Ross answered.

The I-TEAM learned the district has a history of not following the law. The state investigated and found the Richmond County School District has not properly coded missing students in 2016 and again in 2017. The findings came at a time when then-Superintendent Dr. Angela Pringle touted the district’s graduation rate.

“It is important to use that our students in this community get the services the school system provides,” Ross said.

State records show otherwise, and so does a new lawsuit.

The I-TEAM found the district’s former lead social worker and homeless liaison filed a whistleblower complaint alleging leaders demoted her for speaking up about leaders not following the McKinney Vento Act as federally required. She alleges she witnessed “at least 20 occasions on which she objected to the denial of free appropriate public education.”

The same whistleblower sent an email in 2020 warning the district then it was non-compliant under the McKinney Vento Act.

McKinney Vento is a federal law that is “intended to provide homeless students the same educational opportunities as housed students by removing as many barriers to learning ... as possible.”

The whistleblower outlined the failing in a grant application submitted to the state:

  • Students (are) being denied immediate enrollment.
  • Withdrawing students because they are out of zone – or changed school zones.
  • Referrals not being sent in appropriately – or missed referrals altogether.

The Georgia Department of Education has allocated around $186 million to the Richmond County School System over the pandemic to get and keep kids in school.

The ones most vulnerable to fall through the cracks are the poorest, says Frazier, who was a principal at Glenn Hills High School and the alternative school before joining the Richmond County Board of Education.

“The poorest children and the children that I call the invisible children,” Frazier said. “They were only visible at the time they made a mistake or misbehaved. Other than that, they are invisible.”

We found truancy complaints are up more than 115 percent in Richmond County Juvenile Court.

We also found dozens of teenagers booked in the adult jail at the county. Nearly all of them are unaccounted for Richmond County students.

“When you don’t get an education, you only have two places in the neighborhoods,” Frazier said. “There are only two places left, and that’s prison or the graveyard.”

Jaquavious Taylor is one of the teenagers sitting in the county jail. Investigators say he was only 15 years old when he shot and killed 17-year-old DeAngelo Burns. Burns dropped out of the alternative school before he was murdered.

“There are some that are dead now. There are some that are in jail right now. There are some that are sitting behind a homeless shelter. How serious are you taking this?” Ross was asked.

“It’s our highest priority to make sure our students succeed,” she answered.

Success is difficult when a school system fails to track thousands of students who then become invisible and disappear.

Leadership at the district told us they put some checks and balances in place to make sure they’re following up on students who go missing. The Georgia Department of Education is currently auditing last year’s auditing withdrawal codes. The state will not start looking at the students who went missing this school year until the fall.

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