Friday, September 30, 2011

Nanny State In: Mom and Dad Out

Is Nebraska's "school attendance" focus part of a national trend? Absolutely, check out this MSNBC story that sees no fault in programs that are the culmination of the "nanny state". The MSNBC article starts out, "Need help getting out of bed to get to school on time?... Students are being urged to sign up for an automated wake-up call." The state now provides kids with two meals a day at school, wake-up calls in the morning, and after-school homework help and recreation. Who needs a mom or dad?

With American test scores lagging behind other industrialized nations, it seems our state run education systems are blaming every external culprit they can find. Considerable incentives from Washington D.C. are driving the next big push is to have "every kid" in school "every day"! Media sources on board with the federal education agenda to "Race to the Top" throw in "facts" like this one, "What we know is, missing as few as three days of school is strongly predictive of lower achievement and missing 10 days of school is predictive of dropping out," This statement is outlandish!

The "evidence" to support this statement is hardly settled. A thourough study out of Glasgow Scottland, (Understanding Truancy: Links between attendance, truancy and performance) concluded "that low academic achievement could just as well cause truancy as be one of its effects."

Within a grade level the range of absence is large. It is so wide that, for example, 25% of pupils who gained a grade 1 (A) in mathematics had a record of excused absence for more than 5.2% of the year, whereas 25% of those getting a grade 7 (Failing) were absent for less time than this, 4.8%. For unexcused absence this feature is, if anything, more striking. Generally, a quarter of all pupils getting low grades (5, 6 and 7) in mathematics did not miss a single day's schooling through unexcused absence, in this way they were "model students".

Nebraska mom, Jessica Freeman, responded to the MSNBC article this way, "I don't believe for a sec that kids can't learn outside of the structure of school. And I also don't believe it's wrong for kids to miss school for an extended vacation. Why do families have to completely submit their lives to the school's strict schedule when the schools keep expecting more and more of their time? Infuriating."

Jessica's take on the link between attendance and education may run counter to the accepted "wisdom", but she may not be so far off. The article goes on to state that "even affluent suburban districts can see problems when parents pull out their students for extended vacations or let their children stay home for reasons other than illness."

Affluent districts like Millard perhaps? Are Nebraska lawmakers, who overwhelmingly voted to put similar policies in place here in Nebraska, overlooking Millard district's 98% graduation rate? What about their outstanding state and national test scores that put the district's high schools in the top 25% in the country and competitive internationally? Why should the state concern themselves when a family chooses to remove their kids from school for family travel or other worthwhile experiences based on the parent's best judgement with education outcomes like that?

It was in part because of the great variance between schools and student populations that the Glasgow study found it difficult to make firm conclusions about the connection between attendance and performance that could be applied evenly across the education spectrum. Despite the evidence in our own community to support the Glasgow conclusions our state is pushing forward with plans to insert state agencies deeper into family life. Under Nebraska's new "plan" these "interventions" begin when a student has missed five days of school for any reason!

The Glasgow study further concluded that there was a "weak overall connection between absence and attainment (grade earned) until they analyze truly excessive absences, over the average of 28.5 days in one (190 day) school year." At that point it wasn't surprising to find a marked relationship between grades earned and attendance. Researchers concluded that there were "significant differences between schools and external conditions in the student life" such as social background and general ability. The "extent to which individual pupils who are frequently absent would benefit from greater attendance at school could not be quantified."

Nebraskans need to reawaken to their freedom loving principals and separate themselves from agendas more suited to the liberal northwest. Despite the fact that Nebraska "common sense" would say that five missed days in one school year is hardly "excessive", or warranting "state interventions", our state lawmakers share Washington State's goal to "intervene early" to "determine why students are absent and then find solutions." Sound noble, right? After all, "Usually there’s a lot going on in the family." But wait, this is where the "nanny state" enters in and the door hits "mom and dad" on the way out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

State Attendance Goals Impact Student Athletes

Written by: Shari Young

I've been thinking about Club Volleyball 2012, and the travel schedule our Volleyball Club is proposing and how this will impact my family. We have always been able to manage this in the past, travelling as a team/family to these events. Getting the homework in advance to do on the drive, good luck notes from teachers! All at the same time as maintaining a 4.0 Freshman Year and Superior and Distinguished Honor Roll all three years of middle school, and President’s Award! How can this be possible when she wasn’t in her seat in her classroom?

Nebraska's new "truancy law" designed to compel "perfect attendance" and remove parental discretion over school absences has serious impacts on talented, driven, and focused student athletes. School districts in the Omaha Learning Community have brought their district attendance policies "in-line" with the state mandated "Superintendent's Plan for Improving Attendance" and as part of this agenda have seriously limited the responsible judgements of principals and parents that in past years made it possible for students like mine to excel in "out-side" activities.

All over the nation, talented volleyball players are competing in the USA Volleyball Junior Qualifiers. Competing for a spot at Nationals to be held next Summer in Columbus, Ohio. Does this mean Nebraska Volleyball players will not be able to compete at these events, or will be limited now? It is absurd. Colleges from around the country come to these events to recruit top talent, and exceptional students.

Tournaments are 3 days, Friday through Sunday or Saturday through Monday, and you have to allow for travel, and some time to do your homework. I guess the state of Nebraska is saying that outside activities are unacceptable, even when they could help pay for your college education. I unfortunately can’t afford to fly everywhere in the middle of the night. So the choice is don’t be involved in these extracurricular activities which can develop All American Athletes and provide funding for college, because you won’t be sitting in your chair in a classroom.


How can sitting in a chair in a classroom be a better growth opportunity then traveling and competing with a team of other exceptional athletes and students and quality families? Sitting beside the boy or girl who has no life outside of school, maybe they play video games all night and get D’s! But they are equal if they are both in their chair? Really? Please help the fool who believes this to be true. The fool who thinks one size fits all! 

Look around, this great nation is made up of diversity, families, people who succeed on their own talents. And are all of the teachers in the great state of Nebraska really that exceptional that my child is better off in a classroom with them then with me? Square Peg Round Hole!

Shari Young
Millard Public Schools
Omaha, NE

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Buss Family: A Grandmother's Story

As a mother and grandmother I hope that my perspective will be respected by state lawmakers. I have read stories in the news and comments from state officials who emphasize that 20 days is a lot of missed school. They seem to be saying that no student should ever miss 20 days of school for any reason, and that if students miss that much school they must be “at-risk” and in need of state interventions.

First, I want to point out the obvious. A student who misses 20 days of school in one year is present in class 90% of the time. This is an ‘A’ in attendance. Good students have a wide range of attendance. For some children they will never be absent 20 days in one year. The Governor has publically stated that he never missed school as a kid, that a lot of absences for him would be no more than a couple. It is understandable that someone with the Governor’s attendance record may find it hard to be compassionate for kids who are absent more often, but it is not hard for even good students to have 10+ absences on a regular basis.

At the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, our grandson who was in first grade, was suffering from sinus headaches at least once a week to the point where he was forced to miss school because the infections made him ill. Our daughter took him to the doctor several times and was given antibiotics which would work for a short period of time and then the infection was back; in fact, it never really cleared up.

He missed approximately 5-10 days of school within the first two months of school. The doctors finally decided that surgery was required in order to clear up the infection. After the surgery, he had to be out of school for a week. So now we are looking at 10-15 days missing from school.

It is not at all unlikely that my innocent grandson will meet the twenty day threshold under the law and fall under the jurisdiction of the county attorney and fall into the supervision of state authorities. This is unacceptable! Neither the state nor the schools should have any authority to decide what is best for a sick child. That is a parent’s responsibility. The state of Nebraska is overstepping their boundaries with this law.

My grandson story is a perfect illustration of how a perfectly innocent child void of any wrong doing can easily reach the 20 day threshold. Though it was not the intent of the legislature to entangle sick kids with law enforcement, it is none the less what has occurred as county attorneys are required by law to review these cases and provide “oversight”. This makes the average law-abiding Nebraskan very nervous and rightly so.

Jean Buss
Lincoln Public Schools
Lincoln NE

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Hall Family: Branded an unfit parent

Written by: Stephanie Morgan, Nebraska Family Forum Moderator

Lucy Hall, whose daughter attends Clark Middle School in Lincoln, entered a truancy diversion program under threat of prosecution. She has lived the worst nightmare of every parent. She has been treated as an unfit parent because her honor roll student suffers from severe fall allergies that cause her to miss school often during that season. Under threat from a judge that her child could be removed from her home, she has been required to entertain a social worker from Omni Behavioral Health weekly – in her home – among other demeaning, court-mandated interventions to “rehabilitate” her daughter, who is loved by her teachers and peers and has not had a behavioral issue at school in her life.

She was told the program would end at the conclusion of the school year but instead required she meet throughout the summer with other “truant” teens, some of which are truly troubled youth, in order that she develop bonds with other students who suffer from excessive absenteeism.

The state mandated interventions, the condescending attitudes of the social workers, lawyers, and judges, and the humiliation her daughter has suffered are intolerable. Lucy sought legal counsel because of the threatening tactics of those tasked with “helping” her daughter to recover from her excessive absenteeism. After going public with her story, which took a great deal of courage, she felt even more vulnerable and her family began discussing a move back to Missouri in order to protect themselves and their daughter.

One day in the middle of this nightmare, I inquired after her well being and received these emotional words from this discouraged mother, “I have been in a sort of fog the past few days. My mind has just been swimming with so many things to say that I don’t know how to begin! I am angry.....I am sad.....I am heartbroken and really very beaten down at this point. I am discouraged at how very few people know about what is going on or even care about it…It saddens me how few are interested in standing up for what is right.”

In the end, the Hall family decided to see it through and tolerate the “truancy diversion” program. In order to be released from the program and to ensure that they never again fall into the system, they have been sending their daughter to school with migraines. It is difficult for their daughter to function at school when she is sick but she is fully aware of the alternative and will do just about anything to avoid it. She continues to get good grades and hopes to be able to finish high school without incident.

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2011 Update:

We have put up with the program and I must say thankfully we are no longer enduring the stress that this put on our family. I honestly have to say that once it was all over with I just wanted to put it behind us and go on with life but I know in doing so I would not be doing my family or anyone else for that matter any favors.

My youngest son has an IEP and is struggling with more issues than I have time to list here....being that my daughter was swept up in this Truancy sham last school year I am terrified that Steven will suffer the same fate should I let him stay home when hes not feeling well. I have a meeting with his principle next week to discuss issues I am concerned with. The last thing I want to bring into his already rocky education is a truancy issue. I pray they just leave us alone.

Lucy Hall
Lincoln Public Schools
Lincoln, NE

The Smotherman Family

The new truancy law has prompted school districts to consider missing school five days in one year as “excessive” no matter the reason for the absence. The law created a new class of delinquent behavior, “excessive absenteeism”, eliminated the classic definition of truancy (to be absent without permission), and has mandated policies that significantly intrude upon parental authority.

The result has been that students and their parents are made to feel like criminals and treated like delinquents long before a crime has been committed, and even in cases when the criminal statute has been broken it has resulted in a miscarriage of justice for children and families with special circumstance that under the old law would have been handled discreetly at the local school level and now is drug out in court and truancy diversion programs under the supervision of state social workers, lawyers, and judges.

I believe that the law in its entirety should be repealed and that we need to go back to the drawing board. With school districts defining five absences in one year as “excessive”, and the state mandating a series of intrusive “interventions” at that point, we have created the total supervision of school absences by the state squeezing out parental discretion entirely.

I see many dangerous consequences of this law for Nebraska families. What is "excessive" to one administrator may seem natural to another. Or worse, one family may get a pass, because the principal knows that family, but another will be referred to the horror that is CPS and juvenile court? Dangerous waters.

I know that for some kids the flu can knock them out for an entire week. There are many illnesses and conditions that may cause this - Mono for one. And not all of them are immediately diagnosed. Even with this year’s amendment that requires that the county attorney have a plan to deal with absences related to illness, this does not relieve families with sick children from coming under the jurisdiction of the court.

The point is this: Families and children should not be treated as suspects, much less criminals, for living our lives as responsibly as we are each able. Stop trying to make public education some sort of extension of a police state.

I also disagree that this law and the district policies will prevent drop outs. I think it will increase them, and here is why: families will feel pressured into either taking their children out of school in favor of homeschooling or to allow their children to leave high school early for a GED, rather than allow them to become part of the juvenile justice system and CPS. It's backward. It's harmful. It's un-American.

To add weight to view point I want to share with you the wonderful accomplishments of one of our daughters, who has had the opportunity to travel to New York and this year to Haiti as part of her personal development, education, and - very important to our family - volunteerism.

My daughter, Sydney, attends Lincoln High School. She skipped the 8th grade and entered the IB program. In Sydney's freshman year, she missed the first entire week of school so she could participate in a unique opportunity in New York. She had been chosen as one of a few children to attend a week-long intensive performing arts workshop. She developed in unbelievable ways during that week, and she will never forget her experience. She was provided with foreseen homework by her teachers, who actually CARE about keeping their students caught up in their classrooms.

She was nominated and will be recognized as one of this year's YWCA "25 Under 25" "sassy women" who have made a difference. Guess where she was her first week of school this year? In Haiti, as part of a volunteer youth service trip to help build sustainable housing for 40 Haitian families who were displaced by the earthquake. Who knows what is best for Sydney – our legislators and state bureaucrats – or do we, as Sydney's parents?

She is an outstanding student who has been blessed to participate in extraordinary enrichment activities during her education, but had this new law been in place when she was younger, we may have been sufficiently discouraged to parent in her best interest. When Sydney was in 7th grade she suffered from a difficult-to-diagnose condition that made her miss much of the school year. She had daily migraine headaches that were unexplained and unrelenting, even with regular pain medications. She felt so weak and tired that she would fall asleep everywhere. She couldn't even carry her violin or backpack.

After months of horrendous tests that had to be done to rule out many possible serious problems, the referrals finally made their way to a renowned neurologist at Children's Hospital in Omaha. After several tests and the information collected over months to rule out other possibilities, this specialist diagnosed her with something that has more recently been identified as "Persistent Daily Headache Syndrome."

The doctor said the incidence of this in youth is on the rise, and the symptoms can be extremely debilitating. She was given the best known treatment for this condition, and voila! She began recovering almost immediately! We were so thankful it was something that could finally be treated.

I have often thought about our experience as I have come acquainted with families in similar situations who under this law have had their privacy invaded, have been humiliated, scrutinized by state authorities, and in some cases even prosecuted. We are also thankful that we didn't have to contend with being held up as suspects by school administrators or state officials. It is unjust and despicable to put families through some sort of inquiry or investigation, just because some think its okay to strip parents of trust and authority with regard to our own families.

Parents do not derive their rights from the state; they have natural rights to the education and care of their children from the moment of their birth. We are our children's parents, and we know what's best. My daughter is no more a criminal than many other children who will be unjustly drug through the court system because of similar situations during their MANY school-aged years. And for the record, Sydney kept up with her homework at home, and did so well, she was able to skip the 8th grade and go right into high school. She is an excellent student who takes great pride in her own education and has great plans for her future. Thank heavens she doesn't also have a record of delinquency to follow her for the rest of her life.

Melanie Williams-Smotherman
Lincoln Public Schools
Email your thoughts to the website at nebraskaparentsociety@gmail.com

The Whole Picture: The Press Still Getting it Wrong

Written in response to an article published by WOWT, "Truancy, A Parents Concern". 

The author, Gary Smollen, reported that the law requires school districts to intervene in the family life of students when the student misses five absences, of any kind, in one quarter. The truth is the law requires school districts to define "excessive absenteeism" within the parameters set by the legislature, which are that "the number of absences in the policy [for excessive absenteeism] shall not exceed five days per quarter or the hourly equivalent. School districts may use excused and unexcused absences for purposes of the policy.”

Meaning that if the school district chooses they could set the definition of "excessive absenteeism" as being absent five days in one quarter without excuse, which everyone would agree is "excessive absences". Unfortunately, many districts in the learning community have decided to make that definition far more strict, for example, in Millard Public Schools, the district administrators and School Board have gone well beyond the required minimum threshold and instead defined "excessive absences" as being absent five days, for any reason, in one year.

How many people really think that five absences in one school year could be reasonably considered "excessive"? Yet most students and parents throughout the learning community will have their family life scrutinized with face to face conferences, evaluation, and investigations when they are only five days absent in one school year. Even the one parent quoted in the story that supports the concept for the law didn't see the common sense in equating excused and unexcused absences.

There are certainly isolated areas of concern, in certain schools and districts where absences are truly excessive and have in part lead to failing students, but this certainly isn't the case in every school in the state or in the Omaha Learning Community. For example, Millard’s average daily attendance is 96 percent, and the 21,980 Nebraska students missed more than 20 days of school (all absences combined) represents only 5% of the student body state wide. This can hardly be considered a crisis.

What parents really need to understand is that the new truancy law does not address truancy directly, at least not in the classic sense. Instead it has created a whole new class of delinquent behavior called “excessive absenteeism”, mandated that schools address it early and aggressively, and then to encourage they follow through with this the primary change was made to the “criminal” threshold for truant behavior to include all absences, excused and unexcused, thus placing significant pressure on school districts to disregards the significant difference between the two in their district policies.

What we naturally think of as a truant is a student, one who is absent without permission, is something we all want to address. Like the parent quoted, I too want parents to be more involved in their children’s education. I don't believe Nebraska's law addresses the right "problem". The agenda that has pushed this law through the legislature believes that what is best for children is to be in school every day that school is in session. 


Proponents believe that by throwing everyone into the same box for the seemly noble goal of reaching “at-risk” youth, the experts will be able to assess each family situation and root out those kids headed for trouble before they get into trouble. You could call it preventative criminalization, make everyone suspect, and thereby eliminating "suspects".

I believe that we need to repeal and revise this law now before any more families find themselves victims of the unintended consequences of poorly vetted legislation. The next step should be to do some independent research on how school attendance impacts educational outcomes among students in our state, and how it differs from district to district. Before we decide to legislate attendance policy from the state legislature or even the Omaha Learning Community, we should have the whole picture.

My own independent research of the topic has revealed that the very same studies sited by the "expert" who have pushed this law, show that causes of truancy and the affects of attendance on educational outcomes overall is murky.

A research study into the causes and effects of "truancy" in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, by Maurice J. Tyerman, published in May 2011, studied 137 truants charged at Court, and a comparison between forty representative truants and a group of non-truant children, revealed that adverse home circumstances and a lack of satisfaction in home or school are probably the most important conditions of truancy.”

A more comprehensive study done in Glasgow Scotland had similar findings. This study showed a weak overall connection between absence and academic performance, the connection only became striking when the students missed excessively. In a school year of 190, each 1.9 days of absence above the average of 28.5 days decreased the total of the English and mathematics grades gained by pupils by 0.1 of a grade.

The faultiness of connecting educational outcomes so directly to school attendance was demonstrated in this same study when they found that that “25% of pupils who gained a grade 1 (A) in mathematics had a record of explained absence for more than 5.2% in one year, whereas 25% of those getting a grade 7 (Failing) were absent for less time than this, 4.8%. Even more striking was that generally, a quarter of all pupils getting low grades (5, 6 and 7) in mathematics did not miss a single day’s schooling and in this respect they were model pupils.” There is a big overlap in absence between pupils gaining different levels of award (grades) and it was clear that absence is not the sole influence on academic achievement.

Certainly there is data in numerous studies that shows a link between attendance and grades but this report states in its summary that though “the statistical analyses made it clear that absence from school and performance in grades were related" it also "cautioned against interpreting this to mean that absence brings about poor performance." The study names other more important factors in academic success such as parental involvement, social background, the pupil’s general ability and motivation, and other factors to do with how well the student is engaged by the curriculum.

Our state legislature has taken the assertions of “experts” with an agenda without doing their own independent research. Based on this they have made radical and precipitous changes to our state statute that has resulted in serious abuses of power, and tragic intrusions into family life. With the passage of LB 463 and the creation of the Superintendent's plan to "improve attendance" it is in line to become a whole lot worse.

It is a miscarriage of justice to allow legitimate excused absences to be used as grounds for legal action against a student and their family and even more egregious to begin treating children and families like delinquents and criminals before any actual crime has been committed. Five absences in one year is far from “excessive” and is most certainly not delinquent behavior.

Times Have Changed: Forward thinking strategies for educational excellence

A great perspective from Crystal Jones Young on the direction our education should be going in light of a new and changing world. Crystal is the mother of 10 children, she has taken her God given responsibility to educate her children seriously and utilized a wide combination of strategies on a child by child basis. She has children in collage, enrolled in public school, and home-schooled simultaneously.

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Governor Heineman and Senator Ashford have done, with the best of intentions, what they believed was in the best interest of the good people of this state when they wrote, supported, and passed Nebraska new attendance laws. The difficulty is that this truancy legislation has made it impossible for parents to take advantage of educational opportunities available with today’s technology or to take any excursions with their family during school hours.

Crystal's Daughters
Our family is already in trouble with only a month of school. My children missed the first two days of school – we all chose to attend a week of the best youth speakers in the nation receiving hour after hour of motivational speeches on responsible lifestyles, education and setting life goals. My daughter has since requested I pull her out the last 3 days of school. She is the only junior in three of her classes and the seniors will be gone. She doesn’t want to be in school sitting alone doing busy work. Should I advocate my child’s education and take her out of school?

Personally I think that the truancy legislation is not forward thinking, I doubt even parents know and even fewer legislators know how much times have changed offering rich educational opportunities outside the classroom. After all Steve Jobs has changed America with the ipad and latest generation iphone so that now, one can remotely park his car from the phone. One can also remotely access any classroom in the nation with the best teachers and most cutting edge information.

Just this last week my daughter wrote a children’s book in her history class then read that book to the kindergarteners over Skype. Presence in a classroom is not the only way to provide kids with a quality education. Even colleges are realizing that to make their graduates employable, they need to be out of the classroom and in the field. Many senior graduate programs require a jobsite rotation. In all fairness school districts know this too. That is why we have field trips/ guest speakers, and excursions across the nation for FBLA, debate teams, marching band trips and sporting events.

Crystal's Daughters
The Truancy Laws (LB800 and 463) take a step back in time and attempt to put everyone in a box, a one size fits all format for education stripping the students of any autonomy. They say they want us to be competitive and innovative in education, well I don’t see it. Now more than ever our kids are required to sit in a classroom or become a criminal.

What Governor Heineman and Senator Ashford could do is catch up with the times. School Districts in the nation are allowing children to go to school for “A days” and stay at home for “B days.” Charter schools are giving parents complete say in what they teach and where. In addition they will chip in $300 per child toward educational materials. They are counted as a warm body filling a seat in a classroom the children will never see. That is the new education that supports families and increases enrolment and the bankroll of these states.

Children are enrolled with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and attend high school classes ala cart. It is magnificent. Parents get to have children take the classes most beneficial to them, the district gets a warm body, and bored students can cut to the chase and get the education they need to be successful in their life. The schools serve them instead of becoming just another prison in our compulsory education system.

Times have changed. Perhaps most Nebraskans don’t realize that there are countless roads to success in life and not all of them flow down the same conveyer belt model we are building in our state. It would shock some people to learn that you don’t even need a High School diploma to go to college. A good ACT score and initiative will do the job. Neither do kids need to be in the classroom constantly to learn. And the school system still gets money when parents are empowered.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Parent's Plea to MPS Board Members!

Autumn Cook a co-founder of the Nebraska Family Policy Forum who recently moved out of state but has remained involved in our efforts to amend Nebraska's School Attendance law. Her words were so powerful I had to post them here.

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Some background:
Local School District Policies in the Omaha Learning Community:

School Districts in the Omaha Learning Community have revised their attendance policies to fall in line with the Superintendents plan which in most cases has made school district policy more strict then even the state statute requires. School boards have stricken language from their policies to seriously limit what was considered an excused absences. 

The law requires that school districts define "excessive absenteeism with these guidelines: "The number of absences in the policy shall not exceed five days per quarter or the hourly equivalent, and school districts may use excused and unexcused absences for purposes of the policy."

This gave districts leeway up to five unexcused absences per quarter as a definition for excessive, which most parents would agree is excessive. What has happened instead is that districts taking their ques from the Superintendents plan, have defined "excessive absenteeism" as being absent five days in one year! FIVE DAYS IN ONE YEAR REGARDLESS OF THE REASON!!! This is considered excessive!

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Autumn Cook's Comments to Mike Kennedy, Millard School Board Member:

Mike, I have gained the distinct impression that there is a culture in public school administration in which School Board members have very little inflence in what actually happens in their schools, other than hiring a superintendent. It seems that once that superintendent is hired, the School Board just gets to rubber stamp whatever comes out of his adminstration, with only surface questions asked and no real opposition to any ideas whatsoever. If the staff says its good, it must be; they're the experts.

But we elect you guys to protect our interests! As we see them, not as a bureaucrat or trained expert sees them.

We spent a LOT of time talking to our representatives about this, Mike. We traveled to the Capitol in a snowstorm to express our concerns about the expansion of the law this year. We held sustained dialogue with our own senators about the issue. We brought our kids down to the Capitol to share stories of what the original law did, and spent the better part of an hour working out an arrangement with the sponsor of the bill that would protect us from outrageous invasion of our families. But that rested on one thing - you! You and the other elected members of the School Board! We can do all that work, but you know the reality is that my senator cares more about what you board members have to say than about what I have to say. You know that as long as you're rubber stamping their policies, they feel like they must be doing a fine job, because you represent me and the interests of the education system, in their worldview.

We counted on our local truancy policies being applied, not on having them wiped out and overhauled to put teeth into this threat. We counted on our school boards to have minds of their own, to be able to see the terrifying, unintended consequences of this monstrosity and say, "We'll trust the good parents who have raised the good students who have given us our distinguished reputation and leave our truancy policy as is, thank you very much!", not to listen to the experts tell them its better for everybody. We counted on some good old Nebraska common sense about what free countries ought to look like. Can you see George Washington fighting for this sort of sytem? Can you see Thomas Jefferson defending its intrusions? I can't. But I sure can see Nazi Germany pleased at the extent to which they've overridden the natural rights of parents, and created a greater obligation to the state - all for their own good!

Do the people supporting these changes really want a student to miss a chance to visit, say, the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, Washington D.C., or even an international destination? Every reasonable person knows that the actual experience of a place will teach far more than reading about it, and I would think that educators would be very happy when their students get to take advantage of these opportunities, especially when they also finish their homework before they even return to school.

But these policies will also sweep up the child who finds out a day in advance that she must attend her grandmother's funeral out of state, and prevent her from doing that work on the way out, rather than after the emotional event; the chronically ill student going in for surgery from doing the work while pre-op and recovering in the hospital; the student who's aunt is getting married in October at a destination location. What the heck?

The whole thing is extremely disturbing. We were told this new law was to prevent dropping out and deliquency. It does a little to prevent delinquency or dropping out, but it does far more to DIRECTLY target conscientous, responsible families who have no desire to get tangled up with the law. With the revision of the local truancy policies - the last piece in this horrible puzzle - it's obvious that its about everyone - straight A students, accomplished club athletes, musicians who train outside the school system, families who have the opportunity to travel a lot, families who get sick a lot - EVERYONE! And that leaves me convinced that its about money and control, and ultimately, NCLB. You can't make a fabulous district like Millard "better" unless you force the good people to be in their seats more often! To get those federal dollars, you have to improve your attendance rates every stinking year.

It's not right. And it won't stop until someone, somewhere, with a position of "influence" has the guts to stand up to the machine (can you hear me pleading here?) and say no. We've got a system that works, and it works well, and we won't jump through these hoops and into your chains to get that money you're dangling in front of us.

Autumn Cook
Formerly of Omaha, NE
Millard Public Schools

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Superintendent's Plan

Superintendent’s Plan to Improve Student Attendance in Douglas and Sarpy Counties

Introduction:

“The Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties is the creation of the Nebraska Legislature. Within its boundaries are eleven school districts in the Omaha metropolitan area. Statutorily, an Advisory Committee comprised of the eleven superintendents of the Learning Community member districts is given certain responsibilities and duties.

In 2011, those were expressly expanded to the creation of a plan by the superintendents designed to combat the adverse impact of absenteeism has on students and schools. The statutory authority and duty of the superintendents require a plan “to reduce excessive absenteeism including a process to share information regarding at-risk youth with the goal of improving educational outcomes, providing effective intervention that impact risk factors, and reducing unnecessary penetration deeper into the juvenile justice system.” At-risk youth are defined as “under the jurisdiction of the Office of Probation Administration, are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services, are otherwise involved in the juvenile justice system, or have been absent from school for more than five days per year or the hourly equivalent except when excused by school authorities or when a documented illness makes attendance impossible or impracticable.”

It is within this framework that the Superintendents Advisory Committee presents this plan with its twin objectives of (a) meeting statutory duties and (b) creating a comprehensive school district/community approach to absenteeism that is cooperative, innovative, and based on solid research and experience. The plan is organized in four parts:

Part I                     Prevention and Early Intervention (GOALS)
Part II                   Mandatory Absence Referral to County Attorney
Part III                  Tracking and Monitoring
Part IV                  Plan Review

Nebraska Statute

*underlined language was added in both 2010 and 2011 legislation

Statute 79-209
In all school districts in this state, any superintendent, principal, teacher, or member of the school board who knows of any violation of section 79-201 on the part of any child of school age, his or her parent, the person in actual or legal control of such child, or any other person shall within three days report such violation to the attendance officer of the school, who shall investigate the case. When of his or her personal knowledge, by report or complaint from any resident of the district, or by report or complaint as provided in this section, the attendance officer believes that any child is unlawfully absent from school, the attendance officer shall immediately investigate.

All school districts shall have a written policy on excessive absenteeism developed in collaboration with the county attorney of the county in which the principal office of the school district is located. The policy shall include a provision indicating how the school district and the county attorney will handle cases in which excessive absences are due to documented illness that makes attendance impossible or impracticable, and the policy shall state the number of absences or the hourly equivalent upon the occurrence of which the school shall render all services in its power to compel such child to attend some public, private, denominational, or parochial school, which the person having control of the child shall designate, in an attempt to address the problem of excessive absenteeism. The number of absences in the policy shall not exceed five days per quarter or the hourly equivalent. School districts may use excused and unexcused absences for purposes of the policy. Such services shall include, but need not be limited to:

(1)    One or more meetings between a school attendance officer, school social worker or the school principal or a member of the school administrative staff designated by the school administration if such school does not have a school social worker, the child's parent or guardian, and the child, if necessary, to report and to attempt to solve the problem of excessive absenteeism;

(2)     Educational counseling to determine whether curriculum changes, including, but not limited to, enrolling the child in an alternative education program that meets the specific educational and behavioral needs of the child, would help solve the problem of excessive absenteeism;

(3)    Educational evaluation, which may include a psychological evaluation, to assist in determining the specific condition, if any, contributing to the problem of excessive absenteeism, supplemented by specific efforts by the school to help remedy any condition diagnosed; and

(4)    Investigation of the problem of excessive absenteeism by the school social worker, or if such school does not have a school social worker, by the school principal or a member of the school administrative staff designated by the school administration, to identify conditions which may be contributing to the problem. If services for the child and his or her family are determined to be needed, the school social worker or the school principal or a member of the school administrative staff performing the investigation shall meet with the parent or guardian and the child to discuss any referral to appropriate community agencies for economic services, family or individual counseling, or other services required to remedy the conditions that are contributing to the problem of excessive absenteeism

If the child is absent more than twenty days per year or the hourly equivalent, the attendance officer shall file a report with the county attorney of the county in which such person resides. The county attorney may file a complaint against a person violating section 79-201 before the judge of the county court of the county in which such person resides charging such person with violation of section 79-201 or may file a petition under the Nebraska Juvenile Code alleging the person violating section 79-201 is a juvenile described in subdivision (3)(a) or (3)(b) of section 43-247. Nothing in this section shall preclude a county attorney from being involved at any stage in the process to address excessive absenteeism.

Statute 79-2121

The superintendent of any school districts that are members of a learning community shall develop and participate in a plan by August 1, 2011, to reduce excessive absenteeism including a process to share information regarding at-risk youth with the goal of improving educational outcomes, providing effective intervention that impact risk factors, and reducing unnecessary penetration deeper into the juvenile justice system. For purposes of this section, at-risk youth means children who are under the jurisdiction of the Office of Probation Administration, are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services, are otherwise involved in the juvenile justice system, or have been absent from school for more than five days per year or the hourly equivalent except when excused by school authorities or when a documented illness makes attendance impossible or impracticable.

Background and Philosophy

The superintendents, along with numerous involved members of the metropolitan area, have a common understanding that students who come to school reflect our wider community. It is impossible to isolate the “school” within the wall of the school building. Therefore, effective strategies to keep students in school must be linked to the wider community. At the same time, evidence shows that prevention, early identification, and intervention each are unique and vital components of ensuring a successful school experience. Prevention encompasses those school and community programs aimed at keeping students involved, active, and able to attend school regularly. Across the metro area, each school district, along with community providers, is actively engaged in numerous absence-prevention programs. Intervention arises when, despite those efforts, a student is becoming absent excessively, prior to the 20-day timeframe when Nebraska law mandates that a student be referred to the county attorney. The superintendents know that an organized and fully active partnership between school and community with specific objectives, planned sustainability, and the ability to take advantage of the full panoply of rights and responsibilities offered by the laws and regulations of Nebraska will result in successful intervention for students in the metro area.

The superintendent’s plan for prevention and early intervention, Greater Omaha Attendance and Learning Services (GOALS), is founded on current school district absence prevention policies, practices, programs, and initiatives and the current informal, collaborative structure that has been in place over the past two years. In 2010, a group consisting of law enforcement, the courts, and school district representatives came together to initiate a court-supervised diversion program. A part of their efforts evolved into what has been informally known as the Truancy Triage Treatment Team. This team realized that information sharing, regular monitoring, personal family visits, and a multi-disciplinary approach that brought together stakeholders with statutory accountability for children (including the Douglas and Sarpy County Separate Juvenile Courts, the Douglas and Sarpy County Attorney’s Offices, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (NDHHS), the Douglas and Sarpy County Juvenile Assessment Centers, Region VI, state probation, and school districts) provided a swift and effective response to absenteeism.

GOALS builds on this collaboration through creation of a formal Interlocal Agreement between the eleven school districts, NDHHS, the Douglas and Sarpy County Juvenile Assessment Centers, state probation, the Douglas and Sarpy County Separate Juvenile Representatives from these entities would then become the “GOALS team”. The essence of the Interlocal Agreement is that each of these entities will commit personnel and in-kind resources to assure a regular and formal structure by which individually-identifiable student information can be shared, within the constraints of state and federal privacy laws, to accomplish effective intervention for at-risk students before they become “truant”. The members of the Interlocal Agreement anticipate working with a broad group of community entities, as further described in the plan that will effectively provide the support network students and families need to achieve regular attendance and avoid truancy. Ultimately, it is the intent of this plan to intervene at the building level, district level, and GOALS Team level at the earliest stages of problematic student absenteeism and/or at-risk behavior so as to improve student attendance and prevent children from being referred to the County Attorney.

PART I
PREVENTION AND EARLY INTERVENTION (GOALS)

GOALS MISSION: To address increasing absenteeism and at-risk behavior prior to the twenty day threshold without the creation of additional governmental bureaucracy through encouragement of coordinated local efforts to improve school outcomes.

GOALS PURPOSE: To define absence and identify excessive absenteeism, provide early assessment of its causes, and to provide the prompt delivery of coordinated interventions to prevent continued unauthorized absences and/or at-risk behavior.

GOALS Pyramid of Intervention:

Step One: Building Level Intervention – Building personnel intervene immediately (following district policies/procedures and state law) when a child is showing signs of problematic absenteeism and/or at risk behavior. Each school building must access and exhaust all building interventions and resources prior to referring a child to the district/community level (Step Two). Building interventions may include but are not limited to daily phone calls to parents/guardians, notification letters to parents/guardians, parent/guardian-student-teacher-administrator conferences, educational counseling, educational evaluation, appropriate academic placement, academic tutoring, advisement programs, extended school day placement, appropriate programmatic placement, school resources officer involvement, etc.. Interventions are designed to promote regular school attendance and prevent children from being referred to the County Attorney.

Step Two: District/Community Intervention – When a school building has accessed and exhausted all building level interventions and resources, district and community interventions are utilized. The school district must access and exhaust all district interventions and resources prior to referring a child to the GOALS team. District interventions may include but are not limited to: Involvement of district social workers, district level school psychologist, central office administration, district level academic support programs, referral for review of housing needs, transportation needs, health care and behavioral health needs, family needs, referral to faith-based organizations, referral to appropriate community service providers, etc.. Interventions are designed to promote regular school attendance and prevent children from being referred to the County Attorney.

Step Three: Referral to GOALS Team

Assessment Tools may include:

SRAS – Student Refusal Attendance Survey 
Further analysis of type of absenteeism and proximal/distal factors (see, e.g., Christopher Kearney research)
YLS-CMI – Youth Level Service Inventory and Case Management Inventory 
MYSI – Massachusetts Youth Screening Inventory 
DISC – mental/physical health screening 
DPS – Diagnostic Productive Scale 
40 Developmental Assets 
SDM – assessment for status offenders 
Structured Decision Making Model – (safety/risk assessment – neglect) 
NDHHS Safety – Risk Assessment

Step Four: The GOALS Team will identify targeted interventions through service coordination. The interventions will be designed to promote regular school attendance and prevent children from being referred to the County Attorney.

GOALS TEAM STRUCTURE: Nebraska law gives public agencies the capacity to exercise and enjoy jointly any power or privilege or authority exercised or capable of exercise by one or more of the public agencies. This is conferred through the Interlocal Cooperation Act.

It is understood that appropriate action by ordinance, resolution, or otherwise pursuant to law of the governing bodies of the participating public agencies is necessary before the Agreement may enter into force.  The Agreement, a draft of which is included, specifies its duration, the general organization, composition, purposes and nature of the cooperative action, the manner by which it will be afforded (financed through in-kind services, permitted to accept donations of resources, funds, and donations of equipment and supplies, and maintenance of a budget), provision of administration of the joint undertaking, and how any real or personal property used in the joint undertaking will be acquired, held and disposed of.


GOALS does not require additional funding to accomplish its basic mission. In-kind support for GOALS is based on the current informal structure, which relies on the simple coordination of information through staff that regularly meet, confer, and target intervention approaches. However, it is anticipated that as its success grows, involved community members may see wisdom in creating an actual center, accessible by parents, at or through which trained staff can more broadly coordinate services among the Interlocal partners and other community participants. For example, collaboration has been with, and may continue to include, among others:

Amachi Mentoring 
Avenue Scholars
Boys and Girls Club
Building Bright Futures
City of Omaha (Middle School After-School Program)
Goodwill Mentoring
Kim Foundation
Latino Center for the Midlands
Lutheran Family Services
Methodist Hospital Community Counselors
Project Harmony
The Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties
Urban League

Pooling the existing resources makes a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. GOALS supports the removal of barriers to effectively intervene on behalf of youth and families and sharing data and information to improve the individual functions of each and every agency working together on behalf of the greater community.

GOALS Day to Day: At the onset, GOALS is envisioned as regular meetings of all organizations in the joint interlocal throughout the year, on a weekly or bi-monthly basis, with the ability to adjust the frequency of such meetings given the unique and changing circumstances and needs of the agencies and students. GOALS collaborative team will define how and when students will be referred to GOALS. In addition, GOALS organizations will be meeting with key constituents, including local government officials, to assist in maintenance of GOALS vision and purposes. Administrative duties will be shared by the interlocal member agencies. Service functions (screening and assessment, training, developing a service provision catalogue of community providers and contact access, and case management) will be conducted by the various members to their specific skills as agreed upon by the members.

Families play an integral part of GOALS success. Each student referred to the GOALS team will have an informal family services plan. This plan includes (a) identification of the conduct of the child, caretaker, or any family member which is causing harm and the services needed to mitigate or eliminate the problems within the family unit; (b) a description of the services which are needed for the child, his caretakers, or other family members, the availability of such services within the community, and a plan for ensuring that any such services are available to be secured and delivered; (c) a description of all expected action to be taken by the child, his caretakers, or other family members; (d) the name of the person within the affected public service agency who is directly responsible for assuring that the informal family service plan agreement in implemented; and (e) an estimate of the time anticipated to accomplish the goals set out in the agreement. It is expected that families will demonstrate their obligations to help their child achieve regular attendance and avoid absenteeism that leads to truancy.

GOALS services may also incorporate referrals for clinical counseling and therapeutic services such as parenting classes, anger management, academic counseling, tutoring, psychiatric/psychological/physical evaluations, individual and family therapy, in-home services, wrap-around services, and medical care including school-based health centers. GOALS will have the authority to accept grants to fund the purchase of such services for families.

--------------------------ALL OF THE ABOVE IS TO HAPPEN BEFORE A STUDENT REACHES 20 ABSENCES AND BECOMES A STATUS OFFENDER UNDER THE STATES COMPOLSORY EDUCTION STATUTE 79-209------------------------

PART II
MANDATORY ABSENCE REFERRAL TO COUNTY ATTORNEY

For the 2011-2012 school year, each school district shall use the Referral for Violation of Mandatory Attendance Policy form when reporting students to the county attorney that are absent more than twenty days per year or the hourly equivalent.

DOUGLAS COUNTY

At the present time, Douglas County utilizes an 1184 Truancy Triage Treatment Team, All referrals in excess of twenty days are reviewed by this team. This 1184 team follows the requirements of Neb. Stat. Sec. 28:728-733. This team operates as a multi-disciplinary/multi-agency collaborative. The team meets as needed. During the 2010-2011 school year this team met at least once a week and sometimes twice a week. The team reviews each referral and determines the response level (Levels I-IV) necessary to assist the child and correct the problem. Response/intervention recommendations are made in the best interest of the child and forwarded to the county attorney’s office.

SARPY COUNTY

At the present time, all referrals are reviewed by the county attorney assigned to the case. The county attorney determines the response level (Levels I-IV) necessary to assist the child and correct the problem. Response/intervention recommendations are made in the best interest of the child.

RESPONSE LEVELS
LEVEL I                  Screen and Monitor
LEVEL II                 Assess, Plan, Motivate and Monitor
LEVEL III               Intense Intervention, Monitoring, and Evaluation
LEVEL IV               Filing in Juvenile Court

PART III
TRACKING AND MONITORING
If the Douglas or Sarpy County Attorney’s Office chooses not to file a mandatory referral, each respective school district can file an additional referral if absences accumulate to a level of concern as determined by district policies.
PART IV
PLAN REVIEW
Twice in the school year, representatives from each entity will meet to discuss progress issues and concern.
Each summer, representatives from each entity will meet to review the plan and propose recommendations to the superintendents. This meeting should include school personnel that deal with attendance issues on a daily basis. The superintendents will then convene and consider the recommendations from the meeting to make changes/improvements to the plan. Recommendations for legislative changes may also be developed at this time.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Horton Family

The Horton House 

“To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?” - William Shakespeare


Our family’s history with the new truancy law predates the actual implementation of the newer legislation and requires some history of her health. My daughter Hailey has had health issues for most of her life. When she was young, she would get recurrent bouts of severe tonsillitis and strep throat. Unfortunately, with the changes in standard medical protocols from when I was a child, removing the tonsils was not an option until Hailey had been 6 cases of strep throat within a 12 month period.

Any parent who has had a child with a severe case of strep knows that it can be a protracted illness and the thought of having to see your child go through that 6 times in one year is just unbelievable. One time her tonsils were so swollen they were closing off her air way in her throat and we had to take her to the emergency room.

Her tonsils were finally removed when an excellent ENT physician here in town asked us about her sleeping patterns, when we told him she didn’t sleep well because of sever snoring, he advised us that removing her tonsils would be the proper course of action. This in fact helped with her snoring issue and we were hopeful that this would also result in less bouts of illness.

When Hailey started 5th grade she started to frequently suffer from sinus and upper respiratory infections combined with sever debilitating headaches. We worked with the building principal of the Elkhorn elementary school and she was able to keep up with her school work and maintain excellent grades.

The fight we were starting to wage was with the health care community. They couldn’t find a cause for her illness so they believed she was was either being abused at home or was making the illnesses up. I cannot even begin to explain how it feels to have an ill child, one you can’t seem to do anything to help, and then to be confronted with the implication that you are somehow abusing your child. The “please wait out here Mr. Horton, we would like to talk to Hailey alone” statement still burns to this day.

In 6th grade Hailey was hospitalized after a severe upper respiratory infection turned into a particularly nasty case of pneumonia. It was during this stay, purely by chance, she was evaluated by a pediatric infectious disease doctor from Children’s hospital that just happened to be on the floor for another patient. Within 20 minutes of talking to us they were convinced that our daughter had an immunological issue.

This was subsequently confirmed with simple blood tests. We were relieved that we knew what was causing Hailey’s illnesses, but were heartbroken to hear that it was chronic and that there are no treatment options for her. I have heard the lines “…should be able to live a relatively normal life” in movies and television shows, but I can tell you that they really are not comforting words. No parent has aspirations of a “relatively normal life” for their children. They want their children to live extraordinary lives.

With this diagnosis and with Hailey moving into junior high where the course work would be far more demanding, we were concerned with how her health issues would affect her school work. We worked with the Elkhorn Ridge Middle school staff and Hailey was accepted to the school’s Special Education department under what is called a 504 (other medical reasons) placement. This was done expressly to deal with potential “truancy” issues. 7th grade went by pretty much normally for Hailey with her missing well over 30 days.

It is at this point I will explain that Hailey’s immune deficiency prevents her from recognizing that she is getting sick and once she is, it is usually severe. Prolonged regimens of antibiotics are used to help fight the infections and these can last well over a month and a half when the normal regimen is 3 days to two weeks. Even after completing these, she is often not noticeably better. It is the migraine like headaches that are the most debilitating. Light, sound, and movement can bring about such pain that it causes her to be ill, or nearly pass out. Hailey completed 7th grade with A’s and B’s as she always does and we looked forward to 8th grade.

It was 2008, or Hailey’s 8th grade year when we were first introduced to truancy and Douglas County’s enforcement thereof. Due to a mistake at home, Hailey wasn’t being reported every day that she was out sick. It was my ex-wife’s assumption that since Hailey was “protected” by the special education 504 placement, the fact that at the start of the illness the school was contacted, and no notice to the contrary, we didn’t need to let them know that Hailey was out ill. This resulted in the quick accumulation of excessive unexcused absences for which we were turned over to the Douglas County Attorney’s office.

We were scheduled an “evaluation” meeting with the Douglas County Diversion Department. We were told to bring any documentation to explain the absences. We obtained all of Hailey’s medical records, copies of her Special Education paperwork, and a copy of her current grades (once again A’s and B’s). At or first interview we explained everything while the gentleman listened politely and took notes, then he asked us if we would allow him to interview Hailey in our absence. We agreed and 25 minutes later, we were informed that Hailey would be placed in a diversion program.

The program require that Hailey stay out of any trouble, maintain her grades, and that we document all further absences for the school and the diversion officer. The length of diversion was set at 6th months and would be concurrent over the summer. This resulted in approximately 3 months of diversion during school. We were dumbfounded. What about the medical records? What about the 504 placement? What about her good grades? None of that mattered and we were told that of course we could obtain legal counsel and fight the ruling, but we were given a very lenient program so we should be happy with that!

We now move on to Hailey’s freshman year in high school. Since she was moving to a new school and this transition occurred within the 2 year placement review that exists for all special education students. We met with the staff of Elkhorn High School and were very satisfied with the arrangements that had been put in place for her. They were very aware of her situation, they would work with us in any way they could, and we were to communicate every absence and keep them apprised of her overall health issues. This was done and there were no issues at all. The school modified her schedule to alternating days to assist her in staying caught up, worked with us when she was hospitalized late in December for a few days. The school year ended with Hailey getting her usual good grades and with nervous thoughts of moving to the new high school in Elkhorn.

Who would have guessed that 2010 would become such a dramatic year in our lives.

Things proceeded as they had the year before. We started the school year by meeting the staff of Elkhorn South High School that would have the responsibilities of managing Hailey’s case. Everything seemed in order and was going along fine until Hailey’s first bout of illness. Even though I called every day that Hailey was out ill and or that I was picking her up early because she wasn’t able to finish the day, I received a letter from the school informing me of the truancy law and warning me of Hailey's accrued absences. The letter also indicated the number of doctor’s notes that the school had received from me.

Since we had modified her schedule, at the schools insistence, with all of her core classes in the first five periods of the day in case she were unable to make it a whole day, I felt the issue was resolved. It was this assumption that everything was OK that made my reaction to the letter that we were being turned over to the County Attorney so demonstrative.

I was incensed that the school would do this. We we had done everything we were supposed to do and now they were turning us over to the authorities?! I fired off a very heated email to the building principal and it was his calm response that set me on the correct path in fighting this legislation. He informed me, and provided the actual verbiage from the bill, that the school’s hands were tied.

The language of the legislation made no provision for excused absences. He explained that no health issue was exempted from this legislation. Not even a student battling terminal cancer would be exempted. My level of frustration, anger, disillusionment, and sorrow for families facing far worse than us, was indescribable. 

It was then I realized that my fight wasn’t with the school, but with the County attorney’s office. I contacted all the news media I could. I told them about this upcoming mass truancy meeting that was being held at the county court house, my daughter’s story, and my belief that this law was absolute government over-reach into the area of parent’s rights. I initially was only contacted by Jon Athens, a news reporter for KPTM television (local fox affiliate). It was his story on Hailey’s situation that brought the new truancy law to the public’s attention.

On the day of the hearing, I and Hailey were at the court house with our stack of medical documentation prepared to present our arguments to the county attorney’s office. We were interviewed again by Mr. Athens and two other local television stations. We were nervously optimistic, if not frustrated by having to be there.

What we experienced in the jury assembly room that afternoon, was the best case for limited government I have ever witnessed. My daughter was so disgusted that she wanted to storm out on several occasions.

While the 100 or so families were waiting for the proceedings to begin, we were provided a very juvenile and condescending civics lesson by Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich. A civics lesson where she asked the assembly if we knew what the separation of powers was and if we could name the three branches of government. She proceeded to explain as if we were 6 years old what compulsory education was and how important education is for every individual and society as a whole.

She proceeded to introduce the assembled team. There was the county attorney supervising the proceeding, a representative from OPS, a person from Child Protective Services, a translator for Spanish speakers, and a volunteer from Douglas County Legal Aid Society. The last being there just in case anyone felt that they needed legal representation. I was most puzzled by this person’s presence, but it soon became clear. Judge Crnkovich’s condescension and my growing sense of unease aside, what was most chilling was when the county attorney in charge of the proceedings explained how the process would work.

The children were broken up into groups based on the reasoning for the absences provided by the schools. Each group would receive a public explanation of the actions the county attorney’s office would take in our case. The parents would then be asked to sign paperwork accepting the county attorney’s recommendations. She stated that we didn’t have to agree with the recommendations, but if we didn't the county attorney’s office would be free to take further actions.

While I was mentally coming to grips with the true meaning of this, Judge Crnkovich proceeded to explain what these further actions would be. We were told that the county attorney’s office would be free to pursue additional legal action that could extend as far as the removal of our children from our home. Isn’t this an example of the coercive methods of totalitarian states? This explained why the public defender was there!

My next shock occurred when 12 names were called and the group was assembled at the front of the room. This group was asked to sign a release allowing for an immediate onsite drug test. If they refused, they would be detained by local members of law enforcement while their disposition could be arranged. I sat there with my daughter dumbstruck. I thought to myself, …sure come to court to explain why your son or daughter is absent, oh and by the way sir or maam, we believe your child is on drugs and we demand that you give up your personal liberties or face immediate criminal proceedings! I really started to wonder about this proceeding. I even mentioned to Mr. Athens who was observing for his story that I am starting to wonder if I should have brought an attorney.

The next group was around 25-30 OPS students who were being recommended for diversion placement. The details of the diversion plan were not expressed to the whole group. But I sat in growing dismay as that group was escorted out of the room with the OPS representative.

While this was going on, Mr. Athens took the opportunity to ask Judge Crnkovish some questions he had about Hailey’s case. It was obvious by the Judge's response that she was very aggravated. When asked if she thought this particular piece of legislation had gone too far by entangling families like ours, her reply was that it wasn’t her place to comment on the legislation. Though she defended the intent by saying that truancy is a real problem and there are parents out there that will allow their children to miss school for no good reason. It took a great degree of self control not to earn myself a contempt citation and to keep my daughter from saying something we both would regret! Before the discussion could continue, Hailey’s name was called.

We went to the front of the room and I placed my sizable pile of medical records on the ledge between the panel and us. We were told that the county attorney’s office was aware of Hailey’s health issues as the cause of her absences and that we should not be called back for further action. Just as I started to sigh in relief, the following was stated, “We will continue to monitor her, however”. I was yet again dumbfounded! What is there to monitor I thought. She has a chronic illness! With as much control as I could muster, I asked in a clipped voice, “And what happens WHEN she is sick again?” The attorney replied, “We will make that assessment when it happens”.

I stood there for a few moments considering my options when the words of Judge Crnkovich came back to me, “…up to and including the removal of the child from the home.” I reluctantly signed the paper picked up the pile of medical records that I wasn’t allowed to present and escorted my daughter out of the room. We expressed dissatisfaction to the news media and left the building. As we were walking back to the car, my daughter broke down and screamed, “Just take me out of school and home school me! I am so done with this!” She then perceptively asked me, “We will have to deal with this next year won’t we?” Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes.

The next turn in this story occurred when we heard about LB 463 which would expand the truancy law making it tougher and providing significant resources to the county attorney's office to enforce the law. The new additions to the law mandated that the school districts of the learning community write a plan in partnership with the county attorney's office for how to deal with students like Hailey. I was asked by the media if I was hopeful that this would take care of the issue for Hailey and I prophetically said, that I unfortunately did not have much hope that this plan would provide any protection for my family.

Last month I watched with doubt when the Governor, Senator Ashford, Dr. Breed, and the impacted superintendents had their press conference. I still hear the words, “common sense will prevail”. The following day, I contacted my daughter’s building principle to get specifics on the school district's plan for kids like Hailey. I was told that the procedures wouldn’t be any different this year than last. Reports to the authorities would go out at 10 and 20 days respectively, per the law. The school would include their recommendations, just like last year.

I was told that the difference would be that the school would intervene earlier to work on ways to get the students in the classroom. They would be asking my for permission to contact my daughter’s health care providers directly in order to determine what they could do to assist the child in getting back to the classroom. I sadly, but politely informed the principal that it looks like my fight isn’t over yet.

So far this year, Hailey has already missed one day of school. In fact, she became ill before the school year started and was seen prior to the first day of school by one of her doctors so I could start building my documentation. Since then, she has been seen a total of 3 different times, by three doctors, had numerous blood work and tests done, all while continuing to go to school sick because of this law that was designed to address the issue of truancy.

In addition to this, not only is my daughter going to school ill, but other parents are doing the same. This poses a very difficult situation for my daughter who is unable to fight off whatever illness that her school mates are spreading around. Although they may get better in a few days, it takes Hailey weeks or months.

Webster’s online dictionary defines Truant:

tru·ant  /ˈtruənt/ Show Spelled[troo-uhnt] Show IPA
noun
1. a student who stays away from school without permission.
adjective
3. absent from school without permission

Neither of these definitions apply to my daughter nor to many other children caught up in this legislation and yet they are being called "truant". I implore the state legislature, the various county attorney’s offices, the department of child protective services, the juvenile courts, Governor Heineman, and every parent of school age students, please join me in recognizing that there is an important distinction between excused and unexcused absences that protects families like mine from unwarranted state supervision and scrutiny.

I would ask that they reconsider the new law and consider amendments that will provide relief from the investigative aspect of this law. If lawmakers restore the important distinction between excused and unexcused absences student's like my daughter Hailey will be protected by her school administrators who are fully aware of her case and have the documentation of her health condition. There is no need for our family to receive further investigation by law enforcement.

I would also ask that lawmakers provide an exemption for any student who meets and is accepted into a school district’s special education program. As a federal program the guidelines are quite stringent and placement in such a program by definition requires adequate documentation as well as the involvement of both the school and parents. When a student in enrolled in special education their parents are given special protections under federal law and the same rights spelled out in detail should be retained when excessive absenteeism is the result of conditions related to their placement in the program.

If I can assist any other parent please feel free to contact me through the NFPF Facebook page.

God bless you all!
Mike Horton
Elkhorn Public Schools

Email your "open letter" to the website at nebraskaparentsociety@gmail.com

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Lampman Family

My name is Renee Lampman I have stage 4 lung cancer. I was diagnosed in September and we felt it was important to take the kids to Disney since I was given a short time to live. We could not take them over fall break because it conflicted with my chemo. We took them for 4 school days and I thought they were excused. Then my 7 year old Ryan, who is in 1st grade and does not even receive “grades” just S or NS, has had the flu multiple times this winter. One time he coughed until he vomited for three days. Another time he had a fever for three days.

We got a letter recently that he can’t miss any more days (he is at 10) without having a doctor’s note to reenter school. Well I refuse to get such a note. My children are on a health care policy with my husband that is not even close to the deductable to have these visits covered by insurance. I have started sending him sick if needed and will only let him be sent home by the nurse’s decision. I refuse to pay to get a doctor’s note. It is costly and insulting.

I should be trusted to know if my child is sick. Unless he is failing I should not have to justify his absences. As you can imagine I have enough stress with terminal cancer, 4 children and a full time job. This policy is an example of a blanket policy that causes problems for many unintentionally to police the few it is aimed at. Enough already!

The Lampman Family
Omaha Public Schools
Omaha, NE
2010/2011 School Year

Email your "open letter" to the website at nebraskaparentsociety@gmail.com

The Magee Family

Hi, my name is Sue Magee and I have 4 kids, 3 of whom have graduated from Millard South High School, and one who is currently a student there. I, too, have tremendous concerns about the impact of LB800 and LB463 on families in Nebraska. My 3 oldest kids would have all been classified as "at risk" under these laws, so here are their stories:

With 6 people in our family, we weren't lucky enough to escape passing illnesses around to one another, so all of my kids missed the usual number of days staying home with colds, coughs, sore throats, stomach viruses, etc. Let's assume they each missed around 5 days each year due to illnesses or doctor/dentist/orthodontist appointments.

My daughter was an excellent student. She graduated in the top 10 of her class of 500, was on superior honor role all 4 years, took numerous AP classes, was named the top vocal music student her senior year, and received various other honors and awards. She went on to college and to graduate school, and is currently working as a school psychologist.

While she was in middle school, she was given the opportunity to travel to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji with her grandparents. The trip was planned for her to go over Christmas vacation, but, because it was a 3-week tour, she ended up missing a week of school. We, as her parents, knew that she was a good enough student that she would be conscientious about making up the classwork she missed, so we made the decision to allow her to go on the trip. It was an incredible learning experience, and it instilled in her a love of travel and exploring other cultures. She has since travelled to South Africa, Japan, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, numerous countries in Western Europe and even got a summer job in London while she was in college. The trip to Australia put her over 10 days of absences. If LB463 would have been in effect then, she would have been labeled "at risk" and we would have been dealing with the authorities. What a unnecessary stress that would have been on our family, and what a waste of everyone's time turning her over to juvenile justice.

Then when my daughter went on to high school, she sang for the Bel Canto choir, which was the top children’s choir in the state of Nebraska. The choir director was Z. Randall Stroope (the composer Millard commissioned to write the song in tribute to Vicki Kaspar.) This choir was invited to sing at Regional and National Choir Directors Conventions, an honor reserved for only a select few children’s choirs in the country. So several times during the school year, my daughter would miss school to travel with Dr. Stroope and the choir to Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, Phoenix, and various other locations throughout the country.

We, as her parents, knew she was very capable of making up the work she missed, so we encouraged her to go on these trips. We wanted her to have the performing experience, and the experience of working under an internationally recognized composer/choir director. These trips with the choir put her over 10 days of absences/school year. Again, how horrible it would have been had we been reported to HHS and criminal justice. And it would have been even more horrible had we kept her home, for she will tell you that being a part of that choir had the biggest impact on her work ethic and desire to strive for perfection than any other thing in her life.

My son did not excel at academics like his sister, but he was blessed with athletic ability. He started running in 5th grade, and joined the Omaha Racers Running Club. In addition to competing on his middle school and high school track and cross-country teams, he competed with the Racers in the Jr. Olympic events. After several years of dedicated hard work and training, he was able to qualify to compete in the Jr. Olympic Regionals for cross country, and at those meets, he qualified to go to the Jr. Olympic Nationals. So 2 different years we had him miss school to go to places like Madison, WI, Minneapolis, MN, and Providence, RI to be one of the runners representing the state of Nebraska in the Jr. Olympics.

We, as his parents, wanted him to have the opportunities to compete on a regional and national level, and we helped him to make up the work he had missed. When he did the Jr. Olympic Nationals in Rhode Island, we took 2 extra days and drove to Boston, where we hired a retired history teacher to take us on a historical tour of the Boston area, and my son was able to see the places he had been reading about at school as they studied the Revolutionary War. He missed more than 10 days of school those 2 years, but those experiences had a big impact on the course his life would take. After high school, he moved to Colorado to work with a triathlon coach, and after a couple of years of training and competing in triathlons, he was invited to join the USA Team at the World Competition in Budapest , Hungary. He is currently working with a coach in Boulder, CO, concentrating on competitive cycling, and will most likely become a professional cyclist in the near future. Again, what a shame it would have been if we had felt that, due to a law such as LB463, we could not let my son miss more than 10 days of school, for fear that we would be turned over to the authorities.

I will just add one last note: I have 2 friends who were getting "the letters" concerning their high school kids. Both of them signed the papers to have their kids drop out of high school rather than deal with the authorities because of their kids' absences. Those 2 kids are now working on getting their GEDs. Do the lawmakers understand that the dropout rate in the state of Nebraska will most likely increase if these laws are left as is? Nobody wants to deal with that much government interference!

Sue Magee
Millard Public Schools
2010/2011 School Year

Email your "open letter" to the website at nebraskaparentsociety@gmail.com