Friday, September 23, 2011

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I believe that the law in its entirety should be repealed and that we need to go back to the drawing board.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
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  1. Amen. It time to revoke this law (LB800 and 463)or at a minimum remove language that creates a criminal when parents are aware and absenses should be excused.

  2. What an amazing and inspiring young woman! You have every right to be very proud of her accomplishments!

    One of the biggest fears I have with this law is that it will put our students at a severe disadvantage because parents will NOT encourage them to participate in some of the truly amazing opportunities available, as Sydney has, out of fear of missing too much school. We should be doing everything we can to encourage our top students to seek out these kinds of leadership opportunities -- not penalizing them with criminal charges! This law cripples our most promising children by limiting their horizons, and that is truly a crime!

  3. Very true. And don't let anyone say that cases like this will be weeded out, seen in the proper light, and not prosecuted as guilty (delinquent for the child and neglectful for the parents). Once in the system, you are prevented from proving yourself innocent, because it does not benefit the system to focus too long on individual exceptions. Even if you do hire a private attorney to help you, expect to spend thousands of dollars doing it. This sort of system is built to shuffle people through as quickly and easily (for the system) as possible. It begins to rack up the numbers for statistics to justify its own existence (and secure the positions of people like Judge Crnkovich), which translates into more funding and job security. In its wake - though - are the broken opportunities of our children and the autonomy of parents and safety of families.