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St. Louis area school district ejects students, citing expired residency information

Hazelwood Southeast Middle School on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Spanish Lake. The school dis-enrolled more than 20 kids in the last week.
Eric Lee
St. Louis Public Radio
Hazelwood Southeast Middle School on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Spanish Lake. The school dis-enrolled more than 20 kids in the last week.

As part of a policy of aggressive residency investigations, dozens of middle school students were handed disenrollment letters and shown the door in the Hazelwood School District in late February and early March.

In late February and early March, more than three dozen students at Hazelwood Southeast Middle School received letters informing them that the Hazelwood School District was disenrolling them.

In other words, they were no longer welcome at their school or in the district.

The school district’s public relations director, Jordyn Elston, told STLPR and the Midwest Newsroom that the students were ejected because of “expired residency information.”

In all, 40 students got letters. Thirty-eight of them were re-enrolled within a week after providing updated residency information, according to the school district.

A person who works with students in the district — with direct knowledge of the disenrollment— said students were called down to the front office and returned to classrooms with letters stating they no longer were students at the school. They were instructed not to return to school after the end of the day.

“I’m pretty shocked and upset,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their position with the district.

“This is one of my best students,” they said, referring to one of the disenrolled middle schoolers. “She had to miss two weeks last semester because of it. You can’t make that up.”

A 2023 Midwest Newsroom and STLPR investigation found the Hazelwood School District investigates its students' housing at a rate much higher than similarly sized districts in the area — often leading to students being ejected from their schools and the school district itself.

The Hazelwood School District enrolls roughly 15,600 students in its 20 elementary schools, six middle schools and three high schools.

According to an annual report by the district’s public safety team, during the 2022-23 school year, the district performed 2,051 residency investigations. Just five years ago, during the 2018-19 academic year, the school district performed only 148 investigations.

Attorney Hopey Fink, who works on the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri Education Justice team, said the school district’s practice of disenrolling and investigating students can have long-term effects.

“When they're excluded from school even just for a couple of days — and the amount of time that it takes for their parents to scramble and find whatever documentation the district is requesting — that can be really disruptive long term for students,” Fink said. “School is also a place where many students go to receive two meals a day and to receive support from adults in a safe environment.”

Legal Service’s education team has represented several families disenrolled or investigated by the Hazelwood School District. Fink said the recent “mass disenrollment” fits into a worrisome pattern seen in the Hazelwood School District.

“There's nothing in the law that says they need to be doing these investigations throughout the year, and we think the way that this district has gone about investigating constantly throughout the year requiring updates of the investigation is what's concerning here,” Fink said. “It's more than we've seen in any other district that uses surveillance techniques.”

Elston said the disenrollments came as a result of “regular reviews of residency information.”

“Of the school’s nearly 500 students, 40 students were disenrolled after multiple requests to families to provide information verifying residency,” Elston wrote in an email.

Elston said the school district has a responsibility to check residency information regularly.

“We strive to retain all students who have a right to learn within the district," she added. "We also have a responsibility to our taxpayers to ensure that the students in our schools are eligible to be there."

She did not offer insights into the timing of the enrollments, or the manner in which students were informed, citing privacy concerns.

From left: Amanda Schneider, Hopey Fink and Elizabeth Vandenberg of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri are photographed on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the organization’s office in Downtown St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
From left: Amanda Schneider, Hopey Fink and Elizabeth Vandenberg of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri are photographed on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023, at the organization’s office in Downtown St. Louis.

'Educational larceny'

Missouri students attending public school must enroll where their guardians pay property taxes — with some exceptions. Many districts use investigations to confirm where students live.

Assistant Superintendent Chauncey Granger, who oversees residency issues for the Hazelwood School District, defended its investigation practices in a September interview with the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR.

“We're bound by our policies and by our state statutes, and so we have to make sure that students are properly showing proof of residency,” Granger said.

At the time, district officials could not answer a reporter’s questions about why there had been a 1,285% jump in residency investigations in the past five years.

Hazelwood School District Assistant Superintendents Chauncey Granger, left, and Lynette Jackson.
Hazelwood School District
Hazelwood School District Assistant Superintendents Chauncey Granger, left, and Lynette Jackson.

Fellow assistant superintendent Lynette Jackson, during the same interview, said the school district is protecting itself and taxpayers from “educational larceny.”

“We're really trying to protect both students, families and ourselves to ensure that we have the correct number of correctly identified students in our district,” she said.

Public records obtained by the Midwest Newsroom and STLPR show the vast majority of the 2,051 residency investigations performed during the 2022-2023 school year revealed students truly did live within the district.

And, emails obtained through a records request show more than 100 families complained about their children being incorrectly removed from the school district last year.

The records include emails from parents complaining their students were out of school for weeks as they appealed their residency status with the school. Some said they received little notice before their child was dismissed from the school. Some said they weren’t aware their student had even been investigated.

What’s more, records for nearby schools showed a stark difference in the number of investigations performed by other school districts.

The nearby Ferguson-Florissant School District, where roughly 9,300 students are enrolled, conducted only 67 residency investigations during the 2022-23 school year.

The same year, the Wentzville School District, similar in size to the Hazelwood School District, performed 128 residency investigations from an enrollment of roughly 17,700, affecting less than 1% of the students in the district.

The Francis Howell School District, which enrolls 16,000 students, performed a total of 12 investigations, involving less than half of 1% of the students in that district.

“The very nature of having these investigations on what appears to be a pretty constant basis [is concerning],” Fink said. “We understand that districts can ask for proof of residency, but the way that this is happening in the middle of the year and the fact that a lot of those students really were staying [in Hazelwood] — that's just certainly raised red flags.”

Fink said many students who end up getting disenrolled may fall under federal McKinney-Vento laws that protect students in unstable housing situations. School districts often rely on documents like leases and utility bills to confirm where students live.

“That may indicate a need for the district to dig more into whether those students may be eligible to receive additional protections under the McKinney-Vento act,” Fink said.

This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPRKCUR 89.3Nebraska Public Media NewsSt. Louis Public Radio and NPR.

Have you or anyone you know had an experience with student disenrollment in the Hazelwood School District? Fill out a brief form to help inform our reporting.
Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Kavahn Mansouri is the Midwest Newsroom's investigative reporter.
I report on agriculture and rural issues for Harvest Public Media and am the Senior Environmental Reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. You can reach me at kgrumke@stlpr.org.
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