Arizona Principal Hesitates to Excuse Absences of GI's Kids

When her husband comes home to Tucson on leave from Iraq, Keila Rios could face a dilemma she finds infuriating.

She plans to take their children out of school for a week to spend time with their Army dad.

But when she asked for makeup work they could do at home, she initially was told they'd receive zeros if they didn't go to class.

The head of the charter school they attend declared the absences inexcusable and told the Arizona Daily Star that Rios' children would not be allowed to make up missed assignments. It now seems the principal is reconsidering.

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"I couldn't believe what I was hearing," said Rios, 29, of her March 19 conversation with Lee Griffin, principal and founder of Children Reaching for the Sky, an elementary charter school.

Her husband, Staff Sgt. Enrique Rios, 30, is due home sometime this week for a two-week rest and relaxation leave. Some of it falls during the school's spring break and the family asked for an extra week off.

Keila Rios said Griffin told her that families pull kids out of class for all kinds of reasons — from beauty contests to Disneyland vacations — and said it wouldn't be fair to approve her request for makeup work when he's refused the others.

"I said, 'We're not talking about Disneyland here. Their father has been at war for the last eight months and all we have is this little bit of time together.' God forbid if he goes back to Iraq and something happens to him," Keila Rios said.

Enrique Rios, a Cholla High Magnet School graduate, is overseas with the 82nd Airborne Division of Fort Bragg, N.C. His wife and children are living in Tucson with his parents while he's at war.

The couple has an 11-year-old daughter, Khalina Polanco, and an 8-year old son, Andres Rios, attending the charter school, and a 2-year-old boy at home.

"I'm disgusted," Enrique Rios wrote in an e-mail to the Star. The principal "obviously isn't a patriot and has no understanding of what it is like to put your life on the line," he said.

Griffin told the Star he is a former soldier himself, and that he supports the troops and sympathizes with the family.

The Rioses are "awesome" parents and their children are exceptional students — but rules are rules, he said in a telephone interview Thursday morning.

"We have a policy saying we don't give out makeup work for unexcused absences. We can't pick and choose and give preferential treatment."

Several hours later, it appeared Griffin might be backing away from his hard line.

Keila Rios said she received a phone call from him around 4 p.m. Thursday. She said Griffin then said he was prepared to view her situation as a family emergency, and as such, her children could make up missed class work.

Griffin could not be reached after that by the Star.

State law gives school principals discretion to decide when an absence is excusable. Several principals contacted Thursday said they'd have no problem accommodating a military family in the Rios' situation.

"Oh my goodness, yes," said Jerry Gallegos, principal of Manzo Elementary School, a west Tucson public school. "If the dad just came back from Iraq, I would honor the parents' wishes."

Clay Connor, principal of Academy of Tucson Elementary School, said military families at his school have been in the same situation.

"We would try to come up with a win-win solution," Connor said. "We work with the parents when there are extenuating circumstances."

Keila Rios said she hopes her last talk with Griffin marked the end of the problem.

She and her husband "have been worrying all week," she said. "It was very upsetting to think the children's grades would suffer if they spent time with their dad."