Sunday, October 9, 2011

Basic Points of Concern with Nebraska’s New Attendance Law

1. Some School Districts have tightened their attendance policies far beyond what the law requires.

MPS now defines “excessive absences” as five absences in one year, and has removed valid grounds for excused absences making it far easier for students to accrue unexcused absences. To underscore how out of place these changes are you have to understand that it is well know that the law was written to target OPS. MPS Superintendent, Dr. Lutz told me this week that MPS “get’s drug in and painted with the same brush." Yet, OPS report that it isn’t even following the law, while Millard is going even further than the law requires. It makes no sense. For what reason would west side districts take a tougher stance on attendance when for example, Millard has a 96% attendance rate and of the 3000 truancy cases last year only 400 of those were from Millard?

2. Impact of LB 463: Entangles families with state agencies and requires Nebraskans to place significant trust in school authorities and state officials to apply fair “oversight” of their family.

The law was made worse in 2011 by LB 463 which allows schools to "refer" a student to the GOALS team before the reach the 20 day mark. The GOALS team is nothing more the HHS, and you’re supposed to "volunteer" to take their assessments. Well, the problem is if you say no they can go ahead and prosecute you because of the added line to the truancy law that states, "Nothing in this section shall preclude a county attorney from being involved at any stage in the process to address excessive absenteeism." This gives them the "hammer" they want, they can say at any stage of absenteeism, even five absences, or one...that you have to cooperate or we'll prosecute.

I recently became aware of the single mother of two was reported when her son had only a handful of absences. The principal threatened her with truancy actions when they tussled over changes to her son's IEP in a way that was unacceptable to her. Her son was put in a restrictive class with kids who were very low functioning compared to her son, and was put in three study halls. When she said she’d pick him up from school for the third study hall the principal threatened her with "truancy" prosecution, even though this child had a mother who was fully present in her son’s life and education.

3. It’s easy to collect school absences and with tighter district policies too easy to have unexcused absences.

Schools only been in two months, and many students are already “excessively absent” under this law. It’s a lot easier to accrue school absences for legitimate reasons than some people think. This just posted yesterday by a mother on Facebook: “It happened to us that fast. We called our daughter out of school for an out-of town figure skating competition (1 day). She was sent home sick from school last Wednesday, and was still running a fever on Thursday (days 2 & 3). We went to the doctor yesterday… the doctor told us not to go to school (day 4). We have a family vacation planned and plane tickets bought for next week—Millard’s Fall Break. She will miss 2 more days of school. Bringing her total to 6 and it's not even 'flu season' yet. The school said we would get a letter even though 3 of the 6 days have a doctor’s note.” What few parents realize is that family travel is not excused under school attendance policies. With tighter district policies parents have very little flexibility.

4. Exception for Documented Illness is no Pass on Truancy Triage: Families must still come under the jurisdiction of county attorney’s even when the absences are illness related.

“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…”

This additional language is added by those like Senator Ashford who believe that you can make this law fair by fine tuning the way that you sort through people. Even some parents caught in this “truancy” triage nightmare still think that if there were just “a better way to deal with sorting through people,” The law would be OK. But I agree with Mike when he wrote in his online story this: “What we experienced in the jury assembly room that afternoon, was the best case for limited government I have ever witnessed… we were provided a very juvenile and condescending civics lesson by Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich… asked to sign paperwork accepting the county attorney’s recommendations” and told if they didn’t “agree with the recommendations” the “county attorney’s office would be free to take further actions… that could extend as far as the removal of our children from our home”

5. What we want: Only students with ‘unexcused’ absences to be referred to state agencies and school district policies that are sensitive of family needs.

We want to restore the distinction of an excused absence. The US department of Justice defines a truant as a student who is absent without permission. For example, “Kansas considers students truant if they are "inexcusably absent" for three days consecutively, five days in a semester or seven days in a school year. In Wyoming, a student who racks up five or more unexcused absences in a school year is considered habitually truant. Iowa law defines truancy as being absent without "reasonable excuse." The law leaves it to school boards to decide what valid excuses are.”

If we are able to restore the distinction between excused and unexcused absences in the law, it is realistic to assume that the threshold will be much tighter than 20 days, and our school district policy will become all the more important and consequential to the protection of families from the undue scrutiny of the law. For example if the threshold in the state statute where changed to five unexcused absences it would be all the more important how school districts define an excused absence. If the district chooses to continue the policy as it is and excludes family travel as ground for excuse on five day trip would be criminal under state law. Therefore the school district policy would need serious revisions in order to be fair and reasonable.

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