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Arizona Daily Star: More Than 1,000 Students Missing From Tucson Schools Since Switch To Virtual Learning

MARK BRODIE: As many schools have gone virtual and then in-person and then virtual again over the last nine months, it's made education difficult for a lot of kids and families in the state. But there's also a sizable group of students who have just gone missing as a result. A  new investigation by the Arizona Daily Star finds at least 1,000 students have never shown up for an online class and haven't been tracked down by authorities since. Our co-host Lauren Gilger spoke with reporter Danyelle Khmara with the Daily Star more about that, and just how many kids we're talking about at this point. Can we quantify it yet?

DANYELLE KHMARA: So it's still hard to quantify broadly how many kids are missing. I will tell you that in just seven school districts in the Tucson area, there are over 1,000 kids who are unaccounted for; in just one school district alone, in Amphitheater, there is 500 to 600 kids that are unaccounted for. And southern Arizona's largest school district, Tucson Unified, hasn't come up with a number exactly on how many kids are unaccounted for. Individual schools are doing that count and they're still reaching out to kids and trying to find them. So it's definitely over a thousand children, probably much higher throughout the state. But we still don't have an exact number on how many kids schools have been unable to find.

LAUREN GILGER: Wow. And that could be even higher, especially considering students who sort of show up sporadically, correct?

KHMARA: Exactly. So that, that number that I just said, it's — let me see, it's 1,160 kids in just seven school districts in Tucson, not counting the largest school district, who are completely unaccounted for. So that is not counting kids who show up sporadically. If you add in kids who show up sporadically, the number is much, much higher.

GILGER: OK, so there are obviously a lot of implications to this and we'll get to in a moment. But let's start with a little bit about what might be behind this. Is this a technology problem, first of all?

KHMARA: So, yes, it is. Although all school districts, at least in the Tucson area, and, I would, I would guess throughout the state, have been doing their best to try and get technology into the hands of their families that needed it — getting them hot spots, in some cases, even paying for internet connection in their homes. But nonetheless, it has still been hard for some families to be able to have, say, the bandwidth to cover. If you have five children in a home, all the kids may not be able to log on, as well as just having enough computers for all the children. So technology does continue to be a big issue.

GILGER: Yeah. And what do we know about the demographic differences between students who are able to keep up and those who have been lost?

KHMARA: So, I mean, this is kind of speculation since we don't have the exact numbers, but it does seem a pretty good guess that the children who are not showing up are the ones that don't have as much parental support in the home. So they may be more low-income children or children from Title I schools. Another one of the issues is that when the parents have to go to work during the day and the children are at home alone, just not having an adult that is there to make sure they log on, to help them to log on — that is one of the issues as to why kids are not showing up as well.

GILGER: There's another angle here. Teachers are mandatory reporters of abuse, right? And that's usually where, you know, the Department of Child Safety (DCS) will see reports come from — one of the places at least. And of course, they're not seeing kids in person right now. Are there concerns that abuse and neglect is, is being missed, especially among many of these students who aren't showing up or are hardly showing up?

KHMARA: There definitely is concerns of that. So, first of all, the, the number of calls from teachers is way down because teachers are not seeing the kids in person. Therefore, it makes it much harder to see those red flags of abuse and neglect. But the calls that police are making to the Department of Child Services is up. And one of the reasons for that is because when police are responding to calls for domestic violence, for drug abuse, things of this nature, they're finding that children are in the home way more often than before because, of course, children aren't in school. As well, people are being pushed into more dire situations, which causes issues such as domestic violence or drug addiction to be more prevalent. So rather than teachers making these calls, it ends up being police that are calling DCS and saying that they see a situation where a child may be being abused or neglected, but even those calls are down from what they were before.

GILGER: So what's being done, Danyelle, to track down these missing students to make sure they're OK? Whose responsibility is it?

KHMARA: So that's a great question. Whose responsibility is it? And I feel like that is a question from my reporting that has not been answered yet. DCS in the past might have gone out and checked on these children if teachers had seen the red flag and reported it. But DCS is prohibited by state law from doing an investigation just based on truancy alone. So in other words, just by default, this really has been falling to schools. Oftentimes that is individual school principals who are taking the lead role and deciding, "OK, how are we going to handle this?" Do we have staff that can go — oftentimes making house calls to go check on these kids. Sometimes it might be a school resource officer who's going to the homes. Sometimes it's even teachers, individual teachers, taking it upon themselves to go to the home. Obviously masked up, social distancing, but going to a home and knocking on a door and just saying, "Hey, is everything OK? We haven't heard from you." This is after making many calls, sending many emails, and sometimes those phone numbers that the schools have are no longer working. And sometimes when either school resource officer or school staff knock on a door, there's nobody at the home and nobody answers the door.

GILGER: All right. That is Danyelle Khmara, education reporter for the Arizona Daily Star, joining us to talk more about her reporting on the many missing students from school as the pandemic continues. Danyelle, thank you so much for coming on The Show to talk to us about this.

KHMARA: Thank you so much for having me.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.