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‘There are still good people out there’

Adriene Liggins received some welcome news April 28 — Smithfield High School had agreed to forgive more than $500 her daughter, Ariana Ricks, owed for damaging her school-issued Apple laptop.

Prior to that morning, it was looking doubtful Liggins would get to be in the audience as the SHS senior walked with her classmates across the stage during the school’s graduation ceremony, even though Ricks had made the honor roll every semester since her freshman year.

Per School Board policy, students and their parents or guardians are responsible for damage to any school-issued devices, including laptops.

The policy prohibits withholding students’ diplomas over unpaid debts — they’ll still finish high school on time. But failure to pay can result in a student’s exclusion from certain activities.

According to division spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, seniors with outstanding debts can still walk with their classmates across the stage, but won’t receive any graduation tickets. These allow a student’s friends and relatives to reserve a seat at the ceremony.

School Board policy further allows fees to be waived or reduced for students from economically disadvantaged families, as well as payment plans for families facing hardships. But Liggins says she tried sending a letter along with her daughter to school about two years ago that explained their financial situation, and nothing came of it.

Ricks had spilled liquid on her laptop the spring semester of her freshman year. Her mother then got a bill in excess of $700 for the damage. According to Briggs, schools have additional laptops that can be issued to students as loaners while a device is being repaired, but, “After that I didn’t want to deal with getting another one,” Liggins said.

Ricks’ uncle ended up eventually buying her a new laptop, instead.

Liggins has been in and out of work for years. Ricks had been diagnosed with autism in middle school, and driving her back and forth to medical appointments took up most of Liggins’ time. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools and daycares to shutter in March 2020, that meant several months of prolonged unemployment while she stayed home to care for her children.

By January, she had finally found a new job as a custodian at Smithfield Middle School. But a month later, on Feb. 23, a state trooper collided with her car while pursuing another on the Route 10 bypass through Smithfield. The resulting back injury Liggins suffered once again put her out of work.

By February, she had saved up enough money to make a $200 payment on the broken laptop, at which time she received another bill from the school for the remaining $524.95 due.

She made one final attempt to resolve the issue April 27 by reaching out to Isle of Wight County Superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton and The Smithfield Times. A day later, Smithfield High School Principal Bryan Thrift agreed to forgive the remainder owed.

“I’m just glad I did reach out to people, instead of sitting around stressing myself out about it,” Liggins said. “Even with everything going on in the world today, there are still good people out there.”

But Briggs doesn’t know how many other students may be carrying similar debts.

“The numbers fluctuate significantly on a daily basis,” Briggs said.

In 2019, division staff reported a staggering $72,000-plus in unpaid school lunch debt across all nine schools — accrued when students couldn’t afford to pay but were still provided a meal. By the end of that school year, the total owed had fallen to $38,000 after the School Board revamped its policies to bar students with debts over $10 from participating in school-sponsored dances, sports, and receiving graduation tickets.

There have been no new meal debts since 2020, Briggs said, since any student regardless of family income can now receive free breakfast and lunch under revised U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines implemented in light of the ongoing pandemic.

This year, SHS will divide its seniors among two graduation ceremonies — one at 8 a.m. and another at 10 a.m. — at the school’s football stadium on June 12 to allow for social distancing given the school’s large student population. Each student who receives graduation tickets will be allowed to invite up to six guests, who will be seated in “pods.” Seating within the pods will be closer than three feet but 10 feet apart from any other pod. All guests must wear masks at all times, and those who don’t attend in person can still watch the ceremony via live streaming on the division’s YouTube and Facebook pages.