Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Should lawmakers trust the "Good Old Nebraska Common Sense" of Nebraska parents?

As parents prepare their kids for another school year, Governor Heineman, standing in solidarity with superintendents throughout the Omaha Learning Community, defended the new truancy law by telling Nebraskans that they can trust the “good old Nebraska common sense” of state officials as they manage the early interventions under the new plan and arbitrate the heavier load of truancy filings.

I found this thinking upside down. It should be the other way around, they should trust the "good old Nebraska common sense" of parents to decide for their kids what is an appropriate reason to absent from school. He asked us to trust the government to do the right thing while at the same time supporting a law that is built on the mistrust of parents and assumes that a considerable segment of parents are putting their children at-risk when they take their kids out of school for anything other than a serious documented illness.

The key to the plan, as stated by the Governor, is to “intervene earlier”. Last year schools lacked the resources and organization to implement these early interventions that were a key "prevention" mechanism in the new law. The Governor is confident that when these early interventions are implemented fully the law will spare law-abiding Nebraskan families. I have serious doubts that a law which was designed to scrutinize parents more closely at the earliest possible point, will in practice leave Nebraskan parents free from government intrusion.

So what should parents expect going forward? The law to be enforced. Nebraskans have not yet seen the full effect of the law; they don’t yet realize how sweeping these reforms are and how they will affect their families. The biggest change will be putting the “early interventions” prescribed in the law to work. So what are early interventions? And who is affected? 

Under the law when a student misses only five days in one quarter they engage in a type of delinquent behavior termed, “excessive absenteeism”. At this point the school is obliged to meet with parents to investigate the cause of the absences and direct “services” to correct or “compel” a change of behavior. These "services" are the "early interventions" mentioned at the press conference.

If you thought the truancy letters were intimidating, the hands on “services” called for under the law may be shocking. These "services" at the school level include: educational counseling, educational evaluation (which may include psychological evaluation), and investigation by the school social worker. 

If it is determined by school level officials that the parents have been derelict in their duty the law provides the schools the power to share information about students with DHSS and law enforcement agencies. These actions can be taken by school and state officials when a student misses as few as 5 days of school.

Speaking to the "common sense" of the government officials in our state, the Governor said, “OK, some kid misses 20 days of school, he’s got straight A’s. That’s not really the kid I’m worried about today, OK." I think it unlikely that it has escaped the Governor's attention that families with honor roll students with special circumstances have already been made criminals because the law lacks common sense. What is his meaning, "not...worried about today"? Will he be more worried about them in the future?

I have become personally acquainted with some of the families most impacted by this law, and I doubt they would agree that "common sense" has prevailed. They certainly don't appreciate being considered a "work in progress", as the Superintendent at South Sarpy Schools, Chuck Chevalier, described it. Words that cut deep for parents like Lucy Hall, who under threat of having her child removed from her home, entered her daughter into the truancy diversion program, despite her honor roll status. Their family has been court ordered to entertain social workers in the home weekly and follow a regimented schedule of truancy intervention activities. 

At every opportunity, proponents of this legislation have asserted their honorable intentions to "keep as many kids as possible in school, out of trouble and out of court – now, or later in life." They have described the target of this plan as being those students whose absences result from issues of family transportation, lack of medical care for members of the family, mental illness, drug abuse, lack of daycare for a sibling in the family, or homelessness. Despite their assertions that they're not "after families like yours", and that we simply need to "know the process to feel comfortable about it", "functional" families have been affected adversely by the law. 

They're asking us to “shift our thinking” and no longer see “judges as judges, but as problem-solvers”. In other words, we need to feel grateful when GOALS, the new Truancy Diversion Task Force, brings us together with “a group of experts in the area of local government to analyze...” our family's personal decisions and determine whether we're really doing what's best for our children! I wonder how they can expect any parent to feel comfortable about being investigated by a social worker or being referred to the county attorney, a law enforcement officer who deals with criminals?

We obviously come from different worlds! In my world, parents have a God-given natural right to discern when their child is sick, a family trip is prudent, or their child will garner more educational enrichment in an out-of-class activity. It's outlandish to suggest otherwise.

We need to trust the “good old Nebraska common sense” of parents and re-write this law to make it clear that students with excused absences are not subject to “early interventions” or fall under the jurisdiction of county law enforcement, HHS, or juvenile justice. We need to trust parents and restore the traditional relationship between parents and principals in navigating school attendance policy.


  1. This law is based on nothing but good intentions. It's a classic case of "the road to hell is paved with..." Of course there's a correlation between success in school and fewer absences. Everyone knows it, and the government officials who are pushing this draconinan approach are playing on that reality. But there are families in which the children do GREAT in school, although they miss a lot of days, and families in which the kids barely squeak by, even though their kids hardly ever miss a day. What is the purpose of school? To gain comprehension of material and knowledge that will help a person be successful in life (measured well by the grading system)? Or to meet some rigid set of behavioral standards, including sitting in your seat a given number of days? The latter may help people in power feel like they've achieved something because they can control it under threat of legal action, but I don't see it as the purpose of school. Not in a free society!

    The problem with this law is it tries to put every single Nebraska student in a box, and keep them there! It expects equality of outcomes (students won't fail or drop out of school) from equality of inputs. The source of a good education is a supportive family. Period. No government policy can change that - it can only constrict the personal choices of the already responsible families. We always bear the brunt, don't we? In the name of "those other people." We've got to stop giving up our freedoms because others can't handle their freedoms responsibly!

    If you have the opportunity to take your child to Europe, or Costa Rica, or Kenya, in the middle of the school year, do you think you are harming her education? Do you think you should pass it up so you won't have to allow a social worker into your home when she misses too many days? If your child has a year in which she is sick an unusual amount, do you feel you should send her to school sick? That's what this law would have you do, if you want to avoid entanglement with the HHS system and reporting your personal affairs to the county attorney. And in the same vein, would that one not-so-great year ruin how your daughter turns out? Or would it be a year in which she learned some non-academic lessons that also enriched her as a whole person? With the passage of laws like this our schools are turning from a service we pay for with our tax dollars, to a prison which we pay to build and imprison our children in with our own money!

    Standards are important in an ordered society, but this law is outrageous. It just doesn't jive with the concept of free society.

  2. I'll agree with Heineman, Common Sense must reign. I trust he wants what he feels is right. The debate is over whose common sense we should follow. I am the Mom, the school year hasn't even started and we have already accrued at least 4 days of absenteeism. We attend Gretna schools which graciously don't start until August 18th. We will be out of town the first two days of this school year so my children can attend a week of the finest Youth Speakers in the nation. My children will be immersed in motivational speeches on standing up to negative peer pressure, setting goals for life, proactive learning, and moral integrity. Knowing my children, they will ask out of the last two days of school too. "Common Sense" tells me the benefits outside of the school system for these days will far better prepare my children for life than the school system. This law begs for parents to rise to the challenge and be the Parent. Good Parents will do what is best for the children, the family, and the community.