Saturday, May 14, 2011

Truancy Meeting with Judge Crnkovich

Presiding Truancy Judge Tells Parents They're Not Qualified to Discern When Their Child is Sick

By: Autumn Cook

I was intrigued when the Millard schools sent home a flyer advertising a meeting about the new truancy law:

LB 800 & TRUANCY — Join us to get answers, helpful resources and support !
May 10, 2011, 6:30-7:30

"What in the world will they tell parents at this meeting?" I wondered. I was further intrigued by the identity of the main speaker, Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich, presiding judge of the Douglas County Truancy Diversion Program. Judge Crnkovich was a major proponent of the new truancy law, and recently received a lot of media attention after she threw a Millard couple in jail when they came to the truancy court after their son missed 20 days of school for medical reasons.

Since the flyer suggested that there would be resources and support, I was also interested in finding out what these resources and support would consist of, and what types of people would attend. As the meeting unfolded, it became apparent that the majority in attendance were parents of children with medical issues that had caused them to miss 20 days or more. By the middle of the meeting, you could have cut the tension in the room with a knife.

I applaud the Judge for turning out to try to defend the law and "help" people, but either she didn't understand that she was addressing an audience from a school district with a 96% attendance rate and a 98% graduation rate (kids don't drop out like flies here!) and parents whose students were doing fine in school despite their absences; or she really believes that parents whose children miss 20 days of school, no matter what, are demonstrating parental neglect and deserve the designation of "criminal."

This is how the evening unfolded.

The social worker from Horizon High School, a kind-faced woman with a sweet, enthusiastic demeanor, explained that this meeting was designed to help ease the anxiety that a lot of people were feeling about the new attendance policy. "I think it's because people don't have information about what's involved in the process," she said. I wondered how anyone could possibly feel better about being referred to the county attorney, a law enforcement officer who deals with criminals.

She told a truly inspiring story about how Judge Crnkovich had helped a student with a serious attendance problem become a perfect-attendance student, and how he was soon to graduate. "Most kids involved in truancy filings end up graduating," she said. But the children of the parents in that room weren't at any risk of not graduating.

She shared her perspective on the new truancy law, saying, "We need to look at this new law as a community coming together to address a problem." Once again, this would seem relevant with a different audience. But this was a room of parents whose children were neither at risk of dropping out or failing. She had told the story of a student who truly needed intervention. The children of the parents in this room did not.

These are the parents who are angry about this new law.

The general attitude among those trying to sell the new law was demonstrated by the school's social worker when she introduced the Judge. "She's passionate about this issue," she said. "We all are. These are our kids!" In discussions after the meeting with parents in attendance, several of them addressed this statement by expressing the reality that their children are not wards of the state, but in fact their children belong to them. They have earned the distinction of parent and all the rights that go with it from the moment of birth, and through every day that they have, through their own sweat and tears, kisses and hugs. raised, nurtured, and provided for those children God has entrusted them with. This comment, though well meant, became the dividing point between how these parents view their children, and how they are viewed by the professionals tasked with implementing the new truancy triage system.

Judge Crnkovich began her explanation of the new law with an description of what Juvenile Court is. There are three types of issues dealt with:

1. Breaking the law; these are the "juvenile delinquents."
2. Child abuse and neglect; this function is in place to protect children.
3. Status offenders; these are behaviors which are only offenses because of the age of the offender, such as staying out all night, running away from home, or truancy. She then equated "truancy" with "not attending school", a vast departure from the traditional definition of truancy, which is "absent without excuse." She said, "Truancy is a legal term meaning a status offence for not attending school." In other words, due the redefinition of truancy that took place with LB 800, if your child misses 20 or more days of school, you are a criminal.

"It is an act of parental neglect if a child is not being educated," she told this room full of parents whose children have missed many days of school. In fact, she said, "Education is so important that a court could" do a number of things, including "terminate parental rights...Children could be removed from the home if the absences are not addressed." With the record of HHS in this state, this seemed a veiled threat that if you've seen the truancy diversion team, and then you pull your kids from school for a few days to attend a family wedding, you're in danger of having her forcibly removed from your home.

"Abuse and neglect can be willful behavior; but it can also be, you know, in the back of your mind you think you're doing the best thing for them, but you're not." This statement embodied her general attitude, repeated throughout the meeting, that parents don't always know what's best for their own children, and they need judges such as herself to discern what's right and "get them services" to help them comply.

She explained that the new law was needed "to help our children grow and be better citizens...What we now know as a community is all the different reasons someone might miss school." She followed this by explaining that the county attorney has absolute authority to prosecute once a student has missed 20 days, but that he's agreed to work with the Truancy Diversion Task Force. She descibed this as a multi-disciplinary team of experts dedicated to helping parents identify the reasons their child is missing so much school, and finding ways to help their children "stay in school." Again, none of these parents were at risk of having their children drop out of school!

She continued with this line of thinking - that all kids who miss a lot of school are on the path to a life of crime. "Here’s what we’re learning, our prisons are filled with people who have a lack of school attendance.” She described a study of incarcerated people that found that a huge percentage of them were missing a lot of school early on. We've heard this from many proponents of this bill. The reasoning goes:

"The criminals in our jails missed a lot of school in their early years. Therefore, if a child is missing a lot of school in his early years, he's likely to become a criminal. We will help save your child from this destiny by ensuring that he doesn't miss a lot of school."

It's a horribly simplistic look at the problem, and we have no idea how accurate it is. Even though we know how many Nebraska students missed 20 days or more in 2009-2010 (22,000, or 8%) we don't know how many of those were having any problems in school. We also don't know how many doctors, engineers, business leaders or other successful people missed lots of school in their youth. That's a study that would be interesting to see!

She went on, telling the parents in attendance that they're in denial. "But we're all human!" she said, acknowledging that people feel this law is unjust. Then, in a sarcastic voice, "Don't tell me I have a problem!"

"It’s kind of amazing that people in our community are screaming, 'What do you mean we’re getting in trouble for not going to school?'” she said. The implication - hardly even veiled - was that every person whose child misses 20 days has a problem. Quite audacious to say to a group of responsible parents caring for sick children!

When she started taking questions, we saw an even darker side to the underpinnings of this new law. One father described how his son gets migraines that cause him to vomit and be unable to open his eyes. He told the judge that as a father, he could tell when his son was having a migraine; that he couldn't send his son to school that way; and that he didn't need to take his son to the doctor to get a diagnosis. The judge arrogantly questioned him, "How did you know what his condition was? Did you diagnose it?" 

I saw the line of reasoning! If they said yes, she was going to tell them that in Nebraska, only a doctor can diagnose illness! The mother, flustered by her challenge, explained that a doctor had diagnosed the cause of her sons migraines. The judge proceeded more carefully and said, "You've got to understand, that my world is different than your world in this way..." There was a long pause and she thought of how to phrase it, and then she said:

"Who discerns who's sick and who isn't?"

Well, we obviously come from different worlds! In my world, parents have a God-given natural right to discern when their child is sick, and it's outlandish to suggest otherwise. You could see the mother's face expressing disbelief at what she was hearing.

Another mother described her daughter's chronic illness, which took months to diagnose and get under control. Now she's healthy, but with only about 1.5 days to spare before the 20-mark. But, much to the mother's distress, she woke up that very morning vomiting, so she's within a fraction of a day of being forced to go through the LB 800 rigamarole.

"Don't worry," the judge told her. She assured her that she just needs to know the process to feel comfortable about it, and tried to explain it. Her explanation only fueled more discontent in the room as it was obvious that the process was "a long an complicated" one.

In an attempt to reassure parents who were at this point even more concerned, she described a new program she's interested in implementing in Omaha called a truancy assessment center, so that people wouldn’t have to go to the group meetings they are using now to sort through truancy cases. It would add yet another level of bureaucracy to do the same function that was traditionally handled by parents and educators working together. Of course, this structure distrust school administrators as much as parents.

As these discussions proceeded, the frustration swelled. Facial expressions and body language throughout the room told plenty about how people were feeling. One mother, attending with her daughter, had to step out into the hall so she could walk it off. Another woman who was feeling the tension couldn't sit down any more. She stood up and leaned against a wall, arms crossed, trying to maintain herself. A father, sitting at a table in the back, leaned his head on his hands and rested his elbows on the table, working to control his frustration. The tension was intense as these responsible, caring parents listened to someone with potentially great power over their lives tell them they weren't qualified to make decisions about their own children, and that they just need to get used to reporting to the government about their personal family decisions.

The judge acknowledged, "We have a lot of hurt, angry parents." She spent much of the meeting trying to placate people's frustration with the new law, telling them that they didn't need to worry, the process would be easy and they wouldn't get prosecuted. Then she had an idea. "Public service announcements would be great!" she said, thinking of how to persuade people not to worry - the government's here to help!

Here is the major disconnect! Why should we want to make law-abiding, hard-working, play-by-the-rules Nebraskans feel comfortable interacting with a law enforcement agency, seeking "help" from the government? What is positive about that goal? How can any government official who values freedom and family feel good about classifying parents whose children are succeeding in school - despite unusual circumstances that create a lot of absences - as criminals?

As she wrapped up she tried to explain why these parents with successful students needed to be part of the process. "In criminal law, it makes us mad when the crook gets off because of a technicality. But the law is there to protect the innocent." The implication was that we can't let you off because your son missed due to illness. That's like letting the crook off due to a technicality! Your son missed 20 days, and you are a criminal because of it! She pointed out that in some cases she's seen, the kids were missing due to anxiety. But it was actually the parent's anxiety that was the problem. She suggested that perhaps a doctor should be part of the multi-disciplinary team that's helping you, if you have a sick child.

As she described, "we're looking at a shift in thinking." The county attorney, lawyers, social workers and school officials are shifting from a mindset of prosecution, to one of rehabilitation. "We're there to provide help in a way that's not shameful; in a way that really helps."

While these multi-disciplinary community team members are shifting their thinking, she told us, we parents need to shift ours as well. We need to not see judges as judges, but as problem-solvers. In other words, we need feel grateful when the Truancy Intervention Task Force brings us in to assess our family's personal decisions and determine whether we're really doing what's best for our children!

The other major shift - which has already occurred - is the shift in responsibility for discernment in cases of missing school, from schools to the county attorney. This is the way in which they are effecting "a convergence of the education and law enforcement systems," as Sen. Ashford put it in floor debate last month. This only put families at greater risk of scrutiny and intrusion.

It was time to wrap up, but the Judge very graciously allowed me a couple of minutes to speak, as my hand had been up for a while. What I said there is what I would say to those who see this law as the best solution to the problem of true truancy.

The heart of the problem with this law is the shifting of discernment to the county attorney. It places too much power in the hands of law enforcement entities, with whom we have no personal relationship, as we do with our children's school administrators. When you ask us to become comfortable with the shift, you're asking us to become comfortable accounting to government for our personal family decisions. I'm fundamentally opposed to such a shift!

This law, as described by one of its major proponents and the presiding judge over the truancy process in Douglas County, no longer recognizes parents as the authority on their own child. It is condescending. It exposes children's potentially embarassing medical conditions to complete strangers.

The law was written to help prevent kids from dropping out and failing. The kids of the parents in this room are not in danger of dropping out or failing! By the traditional measure of grades, they're doing fine! The system in place before LB 800 worked for responsible parents; now they're being designated criminals. Why would we want to do this to law-abiding, hardworking, play-by-the-rules Nebraskans? 

There are successful truancy programs around the country that preserve the distinction between excused and unexcused absences, while getting services to the small group that really need them. Why can't we take a similar approach here?

Will there be parents who misuse the ability to excuse their child from school? Yes. But you can't usurp the parental rights of all these good people - the vast majority of parents - in the name of those few! Especially when there are programs that work at targeting those who truly need the services, without disregarding natural parental rights.

It was an illuminating evening. I continue to hope that those who want to improve school attendance among those who are struggling in school - those who are at risk of failing or dropping out - will understand what this law is doing, and what it will do when used full force (the law gives the county attorney discretion to get involved at any stage in the process, even after only five absences.)

We must take the time to contact our senators, write to the governor, spread the word about how this law undermines families, and effect a repeal of the law, and the pursuit of a more restrained, targeted approach to helping the kids who actually need help. The best way to help families whose kids are doing fine in school, despite many absences, is to leave them alone! The state must protect the rights of parents and the integrity of the family if it ever hopes to solve the societal ills we face.


  1. AnonymousMay 20, 2011

    After reading about how the evening played out, I feel sick to my stomach. We must do what we can and have courage to say no to how this nebraska law that is trying to legislate parenting! What happened to that little saying we know from "It's a Wonderful Life", "Dad knows best."(or Mother knows best)? It's true that we not perfect parents always, but as parents we have that right to try and be successful or not. We are our child's best advocate. I feel like they are telling me that government knows best. That simply is not true. I am all for helping kids that truly have a truancy problem. But let's leave good functioning, communicating with the schools, actively involved patents and families alone! We are shooting ourselves in the foot to think otherwise. I really am so sad that LB 463 passed recently and LB800 last year. There are better ways to help those that really need help.

  2. AnonymousJune 24, 2011

    Due to the public sector being filled with highly overpaid self appointed experts, we have come to learn that these bureaucrats think they know best on how to run every aspect of our life. Government bureaucrats that run the welfare system and encourage poor behavior, our Missouri dams which "control" flooding, our government schools which are expensive failures, it should come as no surprise that they think they're experts in rearing children.