A Mississippi school district may say “no thank you” to welcoming an international exchange student into its high school this year, but it’s unclear whether they can legally do so.

After a negative experience with a company that facilitated foreign exchange student placement into high schools years ago, the Choctaw County School District decided to no longer accept these students.

So when Stephanie Outlaw, the local coordinator for foreign exchange student facilitator CCI Greenheart, secured a host family in Choctaw County for a Brazilian exchange student and reached out to the school district about enrolling the student shortly before the school year started, she was met with pushback.

Superintendent Glen Beard said the school board changed its policy to protect the district from liability.

Choctaw County Superintendent Glen Beard

“Several years ago we had a lady that was getting exchange students, (and) she was basically stealing from those students,” Beard explained. “So, if we had been signed on as partners (with that company), we could be held liable. That’s why the district doesn’t want to get back into that situation.”

He also said the board was presented with the idea at the last hour shortly before the school year started, and that the school board felt it needed more information before making a decision.

The district asked Outlaw whether it would receive additional funding from the state for the student, but because district’s funding is based on the prior year’s average daily attendance, that answer is no. Officials also had questions about whether an international exchange student would take state tests and whether his or her scores would be counted towards the district’s accountability grade.

According to MDE, foreign exchange students are required to be included in accountability calculations like any other student unless the school or district successfully appeals their inclusion.

The student would come to Mississippi on a J-1 visa, a non-immigrant visa category for people approved to participate in work-and-study based exchange visitor programs. The students come either on a scholarship or their parents pay their way, and host families participate on a volunteer basis, though they do receive a small tax deduction for hosting.

But the school year is already in full swing, and until the company has secured a spot for the student, she cannot make the trip from Brazil.

Outlaw and Carole Arbush, CCI Greenheart’s Regional Manager for High School Programs, say the district could easily vet their company, which is a designated sponsor of the U.S. Department of State for three J-1 exchange visit programs, including for high schools. The company also requires local coordinators to complete a detailed application that includes a host family application and “extensive criminal and background check” of every member of the household over 18 years old, Arbush said.

Stephanie Outlaw, second from left, with her family. From left to right, son Lane Outlaw, husband Brian Outlaw, daughters Cheyenne and (second row, left to right) Haleigh Outlaw, and international exchange student Olatz from Spain.

Outlaw, who lives in Kosciusko and has hosted exchange students that attended the public schools there, said she did not feel that the school board was open minded when she and a member of the potential host family went to the August meeting.

“I didn’t feel like we were very welcomed there because they are so closed to the idea. What happened to them was a very bad situation … but that was a long time ago,” she said.

The school board postponed the decision until the district could receive more information, Beard said. Although it was originally set to be revisited at the board’s next regular meeting in September, a special called meeting was scheduled this week for Friday.

The district’s hesitance to accept the student raises questions about their legal ability to do so. In their residency verification policy, it appears the district simply removed the foreign exchange student requirement from the model State Board of Education policy that provides guidelines to all school districts.

The State Board of Education’s residency verification policy outlines several exceptions for students living with adults other than parents or guardians to be able to qualify as a resident in the school district. As long as the adult can provide documentation proving their residency and an affidavit stating his or her relationship to the student, “students enrolled in recognized exchange programs residing with host families” should be recognized to establish residency, the document states.

According to the same policy, school districts must receive approval from the State Board of Education if they adopt a policy that deviates from theirs.

When asked whether that approval was granted, Beard said he was unable to answer because it preceded his time at the district. Calls and emails to school board attorney Kevin Null were not returned.

When reached by Mississippi Today, the Mississippi Department of Education said it could not comment on specifics without knowing whether the district received approval for the policy change in the past. However, “Based on accountability standards, school districts are expected to comply with state law and the State Board of Education policy on enrollment requirements,” spokeswoman Jean Cook said.

Since the school board meeting, Outlaw tried a different route to secure the student’s education. She reached out to the local private school, French Camp Academy, but found that while the school just obtained the certification to enroll and house three international exchange students this year in its dorms, the school wanted to wait until next year to accept more students.

Outlaw said in the meantime, she is waiting on the outcome of the Friday school board meeting and will also be meeting again with officials at French Camp in January to discuss the possibility of placing students there in the 2018-2019 school year.

“I did not expect to run into some of the problems that I’ve run into. This is just a lot of ignorance,” she said, noting the positive experience Kosciusko schools had with international students.

“I would just think that because the majority of kids in the high school setting are never going to go to a foreign country and meet anyone … It’s a cultural experience if not anything else,” she continued.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.