When Sophie B. Wright Charter School barred two homeless students from attending class because they lacked uniforms this spring, it wasn’t the first such incident.

Nor was the Louisiana Department of Education’s May letter to the charter group its first warning that its actions violate federal law.

Emails obtained by The Lens show Meghan Garvey, the managing director for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights, alerted the state in 2015 to three incidents involving Wright students who needed uniform help.

Last year, Wright served about 500 students in eighth through 12th grades. Like all charters, it’s overseen by a nonprofit board of directors, but it still has to answer to a state authorizing agency for compliance in broad categories, such as equitable treatment of students. Wright’s authorizer is the state-run Recovery School District.

Laura Hawkins, the Recovery School District’s deputy chief of staff, said the state is aware of the 2015 incidents.

“My concern is not only for these two children but for all children who attend this school.”— Meghan Garvey, La. Center for Children’s Rights.

“Sophie B. Wright was verbally warned for the incident that took place two years ago,” Hawkins told the Lens Wednesday.

Hawkins declined an interview, but answered some questions via email. She did not clarify which of the three incidents triggered the warning or if multiple warnings were issued.

Charter Director Sharon Clark said the three students were given uniforms and disputed Garvey’s claims they were kept from class.* Efforts to reach members of the school’s board of directors were unsuccessful.

In August 2015, Garvey wrote to Torry Chatman, a manager of school performance on the state’s charter accountability team. Garvey provided two Wright student applications showing they requested uniform assistance. In subsequent correspondence, she explained they had been kept out of school.

“My concern is not only for these two children but for all children who attend this school,” Garvey wrote on Sept. 4, 2015.

In that email, she also told Chatman that the school said it had not heard of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The federal law requires schools to accommodate homeless students by making policy adjustments, such as waiving certain paperwork requirements and providing uniforms and transportation.

The state told Clark to help two students with uniforms.

Three months later, Garvey again wrote to the state. This time, a girl who couldn’t afford a uniform sweater had been suspended for wearing a plain black sweater.

Clark said the student was suspended for willful disobedience after becoming defiant with an administrator who asked her to change into a navy blue sweater.*

Chatman thanked Garvey and asked for the parent’s contact information.

Clark said the three students were given uniforms.*

In February of this year, Wright barred two homeless students from school for a month because they didn’t have uniforms. That was a violation of McKinney-Vento, Hawkins wrote.

The children started class March 8, Hawkins wrote, after they had uniforms that were properly monogrammed.

“Sophie B. Wright did not intentionally keep any student out of school,” Clark told The Lens in June. “It has never been our intention to ever keep a student from attending school.”

Handbook takes a hard line

Wright’s 2016-17 student handbook includes strict uniform policies.

“Failure to comply with the Dress Code guidelines is considered to be an insubordinate act and will be treated as such,” it reads. “Students will not be allowed on campus with improper attire.”

First-time violators’ parents must drop off correct apparel at the school within an hour, and second-time violators receive a detention and parents must attend a conference. Any additional violations result in suspended.

“Students found guilty of a uniform violation off campus will receive an additional penalty for embarrassing the good name of the school by a slovenly and unprofessional appearance,” it states. “Violations will be punished severely.”

After the February incident, the state took a hard look at the handbook, Hawkins said, and required the school to add a sentence explaining that students who were considered homeless can receive help getting uniforms and must be admitted immediately.

“In incidents where a student’s rights are violated, the RSD and the Department have routinely started to examine related school policies to determine if adjustments, such as the addition to the student handbook, should be made to prevent repeat offenses,” she wrote.

Garvey said schools should be working to keep kids in the classroom.

“Each school’s policies and practices must ensure that kids have everything they need – and are legally entitled to – in order to get an education,” Garvey said.

“When already vulnerable students are pushed out of school, they are far more likely to end up in the justice system and less likely to succeed in life,” Garvey said. “We need to make sure that there is true accountability and that students and parents have somewhere to turn when they have concerns.”

Hawkins said the incidents will be considered when Wright’s charter is up for renewal. She also said repeat offenses will be more heavily weighted in the revised version of the state’s Charter School Performance Compact that is being developed.

*Update: This story was updated to include Sharon Clark’s response provided after publication.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...