‘I cannot move past that,’ school board member says
Before the Lawrence school district partners with local agencies on a truancy prevention program, school board members want to know how a flyer that portrays a Black student as a program participant nearly made it to print.
The program aims to avert students from being introduced to the criminal justice system for missing too much school. Project partners include the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, Kansas Department for Children and Families, Douglas County Criminal Justice Services – Youth Programs, Center for Supportive Communities and O’Connell Children’s Center.
Lawrence school board members during their meeting on Monday revisited a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that would solidify the district’s partnership. After hearing a report on action plans to address chronic absenteeism and prevent truancy among students during their previous meeting on Aug. 28, board members had their first look at the legal agreement.
Board member Erica Hill raised a concern during that meeting about a program flyer by Center for Supportive Communities because the student featured on it is Black.
The flyer included information about the truancy program for kindergarteners through eighth graders and two stock photos: one of a Black person intended to represent a mentor working with a student, but who could be interpreted as an older student, and one of a young Black girl intended to represent an elementary student.
“As a Black person, we don’t see ourselves represented oftentimes but then on this flyer, talking about truancy support, mentoring, things like that … it feels a little odd,” she said. She also clarified that she wouldn’t necessarily suggest changing the flyer but that the photo choice was off-putting.
Hill brought her concern up again during Monday’s meeting and said the flyer reinforced stereotypes of students of color — a grave oversight, she said.Flyer-from-Attendance-Chronic-Absenteeism-and-Truancy-Board-Report
“It’s very concerning to me that we would partner with an organization or task force — whatever it turns out to be — that would overlook something, unintentional or intentional. Sometimes intentions don’t matter; the impact is what matters the most,” Hill said.
According to the district’s report on Aug. 28, 29.7% of elementary, middle and high school students were chronically absent — meaning they missed 10% or more of school days due to absences for all reasons — during the 2021-22 academic year. The number has increased over the past three years. High school students have the highest rates, with 39% of all high schoolers and almost half (49%) of seniors being chronically absent.
Students are considered truant if they are absent without excuses for a “significant portion” of the school day for three days in a row, for five days in a semester, or for seven days in a school year. At the high school level, a “significant portion” of the school day is one class period, Lawrence High School Associate Principal Mark Preut said during the Aug. 28 meeting.
If students reach any of those thresholds, the district is mandated to report them to DCF. But by supporting the truancy prevention project, the district hopes to help students get on track with attendance.
Though she said she believes the truancy prevention program itself is positive, Hill said she was worried that the flyer showed implicit bias. To her, that sounded alarms.
“And it’s not about the flyer. It’s the fact that it didn’t dawn on anyone the impact that flyer could have, the message that it sends,” Hill said. “It doesn’t send a message that aligns with our district values or equity policy, our aspirational goals as a district — it doesn’t. And I am shocked, frankly, that that was the final or proposed flyer. I cannot move past that.”
Representatives with the Center for Supportive Communities were not present for Monday’s meeting. Kevin Harrell, executive director of student services and special education, told Hill during Monday’s meeting that the flyer had been changed since she previously brought the issue to light, but board members had not yet seen an updated version.
Kelsey Dachman, founder and CEO of Center for Supportive Communities, said she appreciated Hill voicing her concerns and said the organization has since edited the flyer.
“We revised the program flyer the same night we received the Board’s feedback,” Dachman said via email. “We look forward to continuing this meaningful and important conversation. We always welcome feedback from our consumers, partners and stakeholders.”
Douglas County spokesperson Karrey Britt responded to questions sent via email with a statement from Pam Weigand, director of Douglas County Criminal Justice Services.
“We appreciate this concern being brought to our attention,” Weigand said in the statement. “We are working collaboratively with the school district and the Center for Supportive Communities to make changes to the brochure because we want our community to know that the state, county, local nonprofits and the school district are partnering to provide truancy prevention services and support for families to keep children in school and out of the court system.”
Superintendent Anthony Lewis said during Monday’s meeting that the district has included diversity, equity and inclusion language in some of its past MOUs and that it would be possible to add language from the district’s equity policy as well as a commitment for partners to review the demographic data within the program.
Britt said via email that “County departments take every opportunity to participate in diversity, equity and inclusion training” and that “Our staff would be interested in any DEI training that is offered.”
Dachman said via email that “We agree that DEI training is important and necessary, which is why we actively engage in DEI training and collaborate with our community partners, stakeholders, and consumers regarding DEI-related matters. We are committed to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our organization and in our clinical, research, and training activities. We strive to create socially significant change for our students and families.”
The board on Monday did not vote on the MOU. Board President Kelly Jones said some edits to the agreement will be made before it’s returned to the board for a final vote during the Monday, Sept. 25 meeting.
View the tentative MOU attached to the agenda item on BoardDocs.