Dixie Littlesun's hardships could have been prevented.
A few months after Littlesun walked out of high school for good, an amendment to a state law took effect that would have barred her from quitting without parental approval.
That, according to Littlesun, could have been key. Her parents never would have allowed her to quit school, she said.
In July 1997, it became illegal to quit school before age 18 without parental consent. A student considering quitting also is required to undergo a final counseling session with school staff before dropping out.
Nearly a decade since the changes went into effect, educators say the requirements helped lower the dropout rate. But, many say, it's not the only factor.
"The law kind of made it more prescriptive in terms of what a school should do," Lawrence High School Principal Steve Nilhas said. "To me the law is still very minimal. There are many things that a school should do before a student drops out."
The dropout rate statewide has declined steadily for the last decade from 3.3 percent in 1994 and 1995 to 1.5 percent in the 2003-04 school year, according to the state Department of Education. The state's figures include students from grades 7-12. At Free State High it was 2 percent in 2003-04, while it was 2.4 percent at Lawrence High.
The law requires a student and parent to meet with a school administrator.
The administrator gives the student a fact sheet showing the comparative earning power of high school graduates and dropouts. They also offer alternate avenues, such as the Adult Learning Center, that a student can take to complete school.
"The aim is that every child and family that goes through the interview process has a plan as to how to ... gain an education in this state," said Lana Oleen, a retired state senator who worked on the amendment.
LHS Associate Principal Matt Brungardt said in these meetings he usually hits on key points, including the fact that the job market has changed and there are fewer jobs than there once were for unskilled laborers.
But involving parents in the session doesn't necessarily change the outcome. Brungardt recalled only one student whose decision to drop out was contested by a parent.
"Usually by the time we get a kid who wants to drop out of school, the parents are OK with it," he said.
The law might work as a deterrent, said Ted Berard, an associate principal at Free State High School.
"It may be that some kids knowing that (the law requires parental consent) don't even broach it," he said.
Nilhas said schools want to avoid getting to the point where students have to talk with administrators about wanting to drop out. He said schools have many initiatives to keep kids involved and engaged in school, including mentoring programs, ways to make up work and extra academic help. The district's Whatever It Takes initiative that aims to make sure students succeed and don't fall through the cracks is one way Lawrence high schools are trying to help kids, Nilhas said.
"Just having that conference by itself isn't likely to have as huge of an effect," he said. "We want to avoid getting to that point."