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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thoughts on Amendment 2164

Whenever I talk to the press, I feel nervous that they're going to misquote me or take my words out of context. So in a nutshell, here's what I really mean.

The current excessive absenteeism law has harmed many children and families.

Interactions with the justice system have been particularly harmful for children suffering from mental and behavioral health issues (depression, autism, etc.)

School districts throughout the state have reported thousands of children to the county attorney unnecessarily. I don't know why. Some day I'd like to get a straight answer from educators on what would possess them to turn struggling kids over to law enforcement without cause or remorse.

County attorneys have prosecuted children who were not skipping school and were absent through no fault of their own, including sick children with doctor's notes. I don't understand this either. I'm not giving the county attorneys a pass; however, I do know it's their job to prosecute and get convictions.  I understand their actions more than I understand the actions of the educators, who have devoted their lives to helping children, yet have caused so much harm.

I am satisfied with the verbiage of Amendment 2164 and feel confident that positive changes will result when it becomes law.

The amendment, if implemented correctly, will resolve the problem of children with absences due to physical and behavioral health being turned over to the county attorney. I believe it will prevent thousands of children from being thrown into the juvenile justice system.

There are children who need help overcoming barriers to attendance. AM 2164 is designed to offer that help rather than punish children who are struggling.

I believe Sen. Brad Ashford is doing a good job of explaining the problems with the current law and why changes need to be made. I appreciate his willingness to advocate for those changes.

I am particularly grateful for Sen. Mark Christensen's work on this issue. His advocacy for our families was behind the scenes and many people will never know the extent of his contribution, but suffice it to say he is a hero in my book.

Once the changes take effect, parents will need to work collaboratively with their schools to ensure the new law is implemented as intended. Parents elect their school board members and pay the salaries of school employees, so parental input into policies affecting their kids is crucial. It is the parents' responsibility to work with their school districts respectfully to achieve what is best for their children. That is, after all, what we have been fighting for.

Brenda Vosik, Director
Nebraska Family Forum

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Amendment 2164: A Fix to Nebraska's Excessive Absenteeism Law

Dear NFF Members:

Over the past three weeks, I have had the privilege of working with a committee assembled specifically for the purpose of rewriting the excessive absenteeism law.  This committee consisted of school administrators, social workers, State Department of Education personnel, a county attorney and a defense attorney, a children’s advocacy group…and me, representing you.

Our committee spent about 15 hours talking, negotiating, and coming to agreement on how we could prevent children with legitimate absences from being referred to the county attorney, while still ensuring that children who are truly at risk are able to get the help they need to overcome barriers to school attendance.

Below is the link to the verbiage that the committee agreed upon.  The amendment is 2164 to LB 464, and it will be debated on the floor very soon, possibly as early as Thursday, March 6.

If this law is passed, it will provide safeguards and oversight to prevent schools from using county attorneys as a first resort to enforce attendance policy, and it will help put a stop to county attorneys filing charges on students with legitimate absences.  It puts a great deal of responsibility on the schools to work with the families before ever referring to the county attorney—a piece that has been missing for the past four years.

These are the key strengths of the new verbiage:

·        There is no mandatory referral to the county attorney.  The school is no longer required to refer your child at 20 days of absence.
·        The schools have six specific steps they must take before even considering referral to law enforcement.  Those steps must be well documented.
·        The cornerstone of those six steps is collaboration with the family.  Parents and school administrators must agree on a plan together when a student is struggling with attendance.  All factors contributing to absenteeism must be considered and addressed prior to referral to the county attorney.  The county attorney is to be used rarely and only as a last resort.
·        After all steps are completed and documented, there is a minimum number of absences (20) that must be reached before the school can even consider referral.  Illnesses that make attendance impossible or impracticable cannot be used in this 20 day tally.
·        An affirmative defense clause has been added.  The amendment specifically states that if the school does not complete and document every step required in the statute, it is a defense to prosecution of truancy or neglect charges.  In other words, if the school doesn’t do their job, the county attorney has no case.
·        The Council on Student Attendance is created.  This council will review attendance policies and practices of every Nebraska school district and make recommendations for changes.  There will be oversight of school districts who have unreasonable policies and/or are making inappropriate referrals to the county attorney.

Parents, these are very positive changes!  With correct implementation, this amendment should eliminate thousands of children being referred to the juvenile justice system.  Education of parents, schools, county attorneys, and defense attorneys will be the key to making this work the way it’s supposed to.

The NFF is almost 740 strong this morning, and growing every day.  We are not going anywhere.  Our group will continue to be vigilant as this law is passed and implemented, and we will not stop pointing out when the law is being misused and our children are being harmed.  However, I believe a great deal of that harm will be alleviated if this amendment passes.

Thanks to all of you brave families for speaking up in defense of our children over the past four years.  WE ARE NOT DONE YET.  I will be posting an urgent call to action on the Facebook page and blog very shortly, asking for you to immediately CALL AND E-MAIL STATE SENATORS and ask them to vote for this amendment. Please help make one last push to get this law passed, for the sake of our children.

Brenda Vosik, Director
Nebraska Family Forum

Monday, February 24, 2014

Lincoln County: Child with Crohn's Disease Threatened With Foster Care

First of all, I am so very thankful that I have good friends who told me of your advocacy group, as I am beside myself with worry greatly beyond having to deal with my daughter's illness now.

I have, for approximately 3 years, been trying to figure out what has been wrong with my daughter, Kristyna, who is a 14-year-old 8th grader.  She had been complaining of gastrointestinal issues and I have had her to many doctors, who have completed many tests and surgeries in attempt to diagnose.  I was hopeful that after she had her gallbladder removed that we had solved her problem; however, quite the contrary.

To make a long story short....Kristyna was finally placed in the care of the gastrointestinal doctors at Colorado Children's Hospital and I feel that we might be on our way to getting her on the right track after diagnosis of Crohn's Disease and chronic salmonella and pending-to-be-tested for gastroparesis soon.

In the midst of dealing with her illnesses, I have been fighting with the school district concerning her education.  I, as a teacher, take her education SERIOUSLY!  Also, as a teacher in the same district, I apparently continued for much too long having some trust in the idea that if I JUST talked to them enough and provided them with every bit of doctors' information, that they would take her situation seriously (NOT A LITTLE TUMMY ACHE!) and help me with her education during this trying time.

I requested her work from her school and had MANY personal conversations and correspondence with her principal, vice-principal, truancy officer, and Central Office. I knew that I was not getting all of the work that was needed to provide her with an education and to pass her classes.  I requested (as well as her doctors) that she be placed on a 504 Plan.  We met and a plan was drawn up.  At that time, I believed that Kristyna might be able to start attending SOME half days with the medications seemingly proving to have some affect.  Then......she contracted Salmonella!  With Crohn's, any stressers (health or emotional) can throw this person into a flare-up.  Kristyna's body was not able to rid of the Salmonella, as a person with a healthy digestive system would.  Her doctors were stumped as to how to rid her body of this with her already-compromised health condition.

Needless to say, this has been a long, drawn-out, horrible process.  I had asked personally and in email that her 504 Plan include a homebound tutor just in case we were to have some sort of backslide during our first meeting to develop the plan.  I was met with "we will cross that road, if we get there."  I told them that since this is all new to us and every Crohn's patient is different, that I felt it an absolute necessity to have this in the plan.  I was refused this.  Augh, we got to that road.......and my daughter was denied verbally and in writing for a homebound tutor. I became impatient after a half of a year of trying and withdrew her from school and placed her in a homebound tutoring program.  I have also shipped her off to live with my parents in Wyoming, as her health has declined and my parents are getting her in a rhythm of homeschooling.  I unenrolled her from the district on February 3 and NOW have a summons signed on February 18 as to my having to show up to court for truancies.  Her doctor at Colorado Children's Hospital agreed with me that homeschooling would be the best decision for her until she is placed on a treatment program that will help her.  I went in to talk to the District Deputy County Attorney in Lincoln County, Jennifer Wellan, on Friday and was treated as though I wasn't taking this seriously even though I CALLED WITH NO RETURN CALL AND THEN WAS SITTING IN HER OFFICE.....of course, I know it's serious!  She also told me that I could hire a lawyer, if I could afford it (I am a single mother working on a Nebraska teacher's salary, paying for medical and pharmaceutical treatments, and traveling to doctor's appointments) because it might be decided that my daughter could be taken away from me and placed in a foster home.  I AM BESIDE MYSELF!!!!! 

Kristyna is currently with my parents in Wyoming and I am going to be signing over Power of Attorney for health and education.  Will this help my situation?  Please help!!!  My daughter has lived with me her entire life, is a great student, participates in volleyball and basketball (even played through pain in her tournament prior to her gallbladder surgery against my judgement), and is a talented and beautiful singer.  She WANTS to be back with her friends and activities at school.....her health isn't allowing! I CANNOT BELIEVE that a school system has been that unwilling to help a child with a tutor and for laws that are to help children are hurting these kids who are suffering health issues!!!!!!! 

I am an educated individual and this entire situation doesn't even allow me the ability to "write" cohesively when telling of this story right now.  I pray that you can help guide me in a direction that will "stave off the wolves" and allow me to continue to care for my child.


Denise Shoults
North Platte Teacher and Pained Parent

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Flatt Family: Another Chronically Ill Child Charged with Truancy in Douglas County

 My daughter Katrina just turned 15 last week.  She has several serious, chronic medical problems, including juvenile diabetes, severe migraines, and a bowel disorder.  We have seven doctors working with Katrina, including a pain management therapist.  We are doing the best we can to help our daughter.

We have communicated with Westside High School and they are fully aware of Katrina’s medical problems.  They adjusted her schedule and agreed to consider making additional changes, but now they have turned us in to the county attorney.  Westside told us their “hands are tied” because of LB 933 and we found out that’s not necessarily true.  If they would have excused all her absences, which they should have since every one was for illness, then they wouldn’t have had to turn her in.  Also, we know now that there’s a cover sheet attached to every referral and our school had the opportunity to check “do not prosecute” on the sheet.  They must have recommended the county attorney prosecute our daughter, because she got served with papers accusing her of being truant.  She has never skipped a day of school in her life.

Can anyone tell me how the county attorney is going to help my sick daughter?
How does punishing her for being sick help her attendance?  It doesn’t!  It will only make things worse.  The stress on her has just increased by a ton!  She knows that other sick kids have been taken away from their parents, and we are all terrified that she will be next.

Last year, in middle school, Katrina missed even more days than she has this year.  We were called down to the courthouse but as soon as they saw our medical documentation, they told us to go home.  Now this year, they file charges?  None of this makes any sense.

This is a terrible, unfair law that is hurting innocent kids.  My daughter is not a criminal, she is a sick little girl who hates missing so much school.  I don’t understand how adults can treat kids this way.  If the point of this law is to terrify sick children, then the law is working.

We are now going to have to hire an attorney to represent us at our court hearing in two weeks.  That’s a couple thousand dollars that we can’t spare, but that’s what this law, the school, and the county attorney are forcing parents of sick kids to do.  In the meantime, we will talk to Katrina’s grandmother in Iowa to see if Katrina can come there and live.  If  leaving Nebraska is the only way our daughter can be safe, then we’ll have to do it, but it’s not right that Nebraska parents should have to send their sick children away to protect them.

Donna Flatt
District 66
February 23, 2014

"I Had Done Nothing Wrong But Be Sick"

Lucas Maynard was only 12 when the sheriff served him with papers accusing him of being “a juvenile who is habitually truant from home or school and deports himself in a manner so as to injure or seriously endanger the morals or health of himself or others.”  Lucas's absences were all excused by his school since they were either due to illness or to days when the roads were impassable because of heavy snow (the Maynards lived in a rural area 12 miles from their school).  Thinking the charges had to be a mistake, Lucas's parents went to court with their doctor's notes, assuming everything would be straightened out quickly.  Imagine their shock when their son was separated from them, placed between a prosecutor and a guardian ad litem, and told by the judge he might be taken from his parents.  Lucas writes about this frightening experience in his letter to the Judiciary Committee.

Dear Members of the Judiciary Committee;

My parents and I are in support for the changes to the attendence law and the new proposed amendments. We want to see an end to the stories of children and their families being taking into court by county attorneys for being sick from school like I was this past year.

I had done nothing wrong but be sick and then to have my name given to a deputy county attorney who didn't even know me or my family and then he filed papers against me. He didn't even talk to my principal or my mom or dad about why I was missing school.

He just sent a deputy to my house with the papers for me and my parents and I was told if I didn't go to court I would go to jail. I was very scared. But my mom said not to worry.

But when we did go to court, they made me sit at a table with guys I didn't know and the judge had the charges read to me about things I hadn't done and then told me if I was guilty I would be taken away from my parents. I was asked if I understood all of this lawyer talk but I didn't even though I said I did.

It took my mom and the help of others to get the county attorney to drop the charges so I did not have to go to court again but we still had to deal with the law this year as I became sick again.

Please fix this law so kids like me who are sick don't have to go to court or have to deal with cops and lawyers.

Lucas Maynard
Gurley, Nebraska